Emotions fly in highway death sentencing hearing in Pitkin County Court
A county judge halted a sentencing hearing Thursday after the attorney for the motorist responsible for the death of an Indiana college student said his client was having serious emotional issues.
But it wasn’t before a multitude of friends and relatives of Meleyna Kistner, often fighting back tears, offered endearing remarks over the course of six hours about the 21-year-old woman who was killed Aug. 23 after Basalt resident Christine Tinner crossed the center line on Highway 133. They spoke of an intelligent woman — she had a college GPA of 3.8 — who had an infectious personality and lived to her own beat.
They also expressed, some of them vehemently, that Tinner needs to be held accountable for her actions in a state where they said accountability appears to be lacking.
Tinner has pleaded guilty to careless driving-causing death and careless driving-causing injury, both misdemeanors. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped three other charges.
The hearing is set to continue at 10 a.m. today. Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely also is expected to issue a sentence that could include up to a year in jail, probation and community service. Many of Kistner’s supporters said they are just as concerned about moving forward and honoring her legacy, but they also want Tinner — who has eight speeding tickets dating back to 1991 — off the road. They also stuck to their message that Tinner should have been tested for alcohol and drugs after the accident and were baffled that she wasn’t.
The Colorado State Patrol officer who led the crash-scene investigation has said there wasn’t probable cause to do that. Tinner’s attorney, Dan Shipp of Basalt, said he would bring forward evidence during today’s hearing that would answer many of the family’s questions. Some relatives have suggested that Tinner might have been intoxicated or under the influence of anti-depressants when she was driving. Authorities say they believe she fell asleep when she drifted her 2010 Honda hatchback into the lane of oncoming traffic near mile marker 55, and police records show that they didn’t believe alcohol or drugs were a factor in the accident. Lab test results from Valley View Hospital, where Tinner was transported with injuries that included a broken leg, said that her alcohol level was negative, according to medical documents Shipp provided to The Aspen Times.
“I don’t have a specific recommendation for the judge, but whatever sentence this court imposes, some amount of jail time with probation and community service needs to be done to rebuild the harm to the entire community that has been done,” said prosecutor Andrea Bryan.
The courtroom was nearly full, with much of Kistner’s relatives and friends on one side, while Tinner also had her supporters, including her mother, father, brother and sister, who sat in the front row and listened to the emotionally charged testimony, including a comment from Kistner’s stepmother that Tinner is “an evil woman.”
Other members of the audience, including some of Kistner’s relatives, said they weren’t out for revenge, but they did want Tinner off the road. Tinner’s supporters, including two from Colorado Mountain College, where she teaches, commended her work ethic and giving personality. Shipp also has provided the judge with a stack of character-witness letters from CMC staff, a rabbi and other community members.
The hearing was part memorial service, part legal debate, and had tenors of a therapeutic session for a close-knit, well-educated Christian family that revealed the grueling emotional struggles that have ensued ever since Kistner, a promising mechanical engineering student at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, died.
“It’s gut-wrenching to watch your son in pain, to watch families crumble just in sorrow,” said Tim Thul, the father of Daniel Thul, Kistner’s boyfriend who was a passenger in the 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier she was driving. “It’s an incredibly hard thing to deal with.”
Oftentimes, Fernandez-Ely engaged the speakers — some were in person, others were on phone — about what they would thought would be an appropriate sentence.
“There are a lot of people in this state and other states that are following this, and whatever sentencing that comes out (Friday) is going to be felt in this state,” said Ron Carlson, Kistner’s stepfather, calling for Tinner’s driver’s license to be taken away.
The judge, however, can’t revoke a driver’s license — that’s a call the Department of Motor Vehicles makes. She could, though, as part of sentencing, order Tinner not to drive during a specific period of time.
Thul’s father gave Fernandez-Ely a message that summarized what many of Kistner’s relatives had expressed before he took the stand: “We rely on the system. … It’s in your hands and it’s a daunting task, but quite honestly, this is the path you chose.”
Relatives who testified ranged from Kistner’s 9-year-old half-brother to two of her grandmothers. They spoke of her love of mechanical engineering and vehicle technology, a fact not lost on the judge, who is an advocate of driverless cars.
“Her passion was cars, automobiles, engine design,” Daniel Thul said. “Anything that was under the hood a car, she was interested in.”
Some of Kistner’s family members offered theories as to what made her cross the line that fateful night. But they universally agreed that a woman with eight speeding citations should not be driving.
“You cannot allow someone to be reckless forever,” said Jennifer Thul, Daniel’s mother. “You cannot.”
Daniel Thul called Kistner his “soulmate.”
“I’ll never be as happy as I was with her. And you only have one soulmate,” he said. “She was mine and I’ll never meet someone I will connect with like her.”
Thul, who recently graduated from Rose-Hulman and is a research scientist at an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, nearly lost a foot from the accident, which left him with six pins in his ankle and other serious injuries.
Relatives spoke of what could have been. Kistner and Thul were on track for a life they would live together, have children and possibly grow a business. “We were supposed to grow old together,” said Kistner’s older brother Kyle, 23, via telephone. “We were supposed to have kids. My kids were supposed to play with her kids.”
“I was secretly dreaming of beautiful, brown-eyed grand babies, because I knew they were going to be together,” said Jennifer Thul. “I loved her brown eyes and her spark and her life. Everyone who knew them knew they were going to be together.”
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