Traffic-death cases pose challenge for Pitkin County judge
A county judge admitted Tuesday that she is struggling with two cases involving highway deaths as they near adjudication.
Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely is presiding over the cases of both John Walls, an 89-year-old man who was driving on the wrong side of Highway 82 when he hit and killed a motorcyclist, and Christine L. Tinner, who was driving a vehicle that crossed the line on Highway 133 resulting in the death of a young woman.
Both highway fatalities happened the same day, Aug. 23, in Pitkin County.
The culprits in both deaths, the two motorists, won’t likely face harsh punishments, much to the frustration and anger of the victims’ surviving relatives.
“The truth is, we should not be driving cars — none of us,” the judge said at a hearing for Walls. “It’s a weapon. I pray that driverless cars are a reality soon enough. I’m getting emotional, but I’ve done a lot of research and soul searching and talking to first responders who were deeply affected as well by careless driving.”
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.
Her sentencing hearing is set Thursday and Friday. She could face one year in Pitkin County Jail, but Ely-Fernandez previously suggested she was leaning toward sentencing Tinner to a combination of probation and community service.
“(The first responders) had to clean up the (accident on Highway 82) and as soon as they were done, they had to go to Highway 133 where the girl was killed,” the judge said. “That case comes up for sentencing on Thursday and the victims, the survivors, are outraged that it was charged not as a felony but as a misdemeanor.”
Relatives of the deceased victim, Meleyna Kistner, 21, who was a college student in Indiana, have expressed dismay at the Colorado State Patrol’s failure to test Tinner for drugs or alcohol after the accident. The patrolman has said he didn’t have probable cause to run any tests on Tinner, who broke her leg from the accident.
“I don’t know that I can say what we would hope for Friday (at sentencing),” said Kistner’s stepmother, Heather Kistner. Kistner, who lives in Illinois, said she will attend the hearing with other relatives. “Both (prosecutor) Andrea Bryan and the judge have set our expectations extremely low, and that’s been proven from the beginning.”
Justice would be served, Kistner said, if Colorado law is changed requiring those involved in injury/death accidents to be tested for substances.
“If there’s a traffic incident or accident, everybody gets tested,” she said.
Walls, in the meantime, appeared in Pitkin County Court on Tuesday as the parties discussed how to proceed. Joining the hearing, via telephone, was Robert Dunn, the brother of Basalt resident Patrick Dunn, 53, who was killed in the accident. Dunn said it appears that Walls is getting a “free pass.”
That’s largely because the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office has filed a motion to dismiss the two misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment and careless driving causing death, and a traffic-lane violation count. The reasoning is that an evaluator has found Walls, who suffers from dementia, to be incompetent to stand trial. Walls’ hearing ability also is fading.
The judge ultimately will determine whether Walls is incompetent, in the legal sense, so that he can’t be charged.
The Public Defender’s Office also supports the motion to dismiss the case. Fernandez-Ely said she would take the motion under advisement. Walls is due back in court April 13.
Walls’ stepson, as well as his public defender, Jose Gonzales, said that he is third on the waiting list for senior housing in Carbondale. He would be able, however, to come and go as he pleases with his new living arrangement. Walls, who once practiced architecture, currently lives alone in a Carbondale apartment. He no longer drives, his attorney and stepson said. The stepson has taken legal steps in Garfield County to assume power of attorney for Walls.
Robert Dunn, however, expressed no confidence in the pending scenario and questioned if it would serve justice.
“My concern here is, if he gets in a place where he has all of this independence, how does that change from now?” Robert Dunn told the court. “How does that better things? … The bottom line here, as a victim, I would ask not to dismiss this case yet until all the ‘I’s are dotted and the ‘T’s are crossed.”
Ely said she understood Dunn’s concerns.
“If you’re not able to communicate and understand this traffic case of driving the wrong way and killing somebody, then how can you understand the requirements of living?” she said. “Aren’t you a danger to yourself? That’s where the court struggles.”
Robert Dunn questioned why Walls couldn’t live with his stepson. The stepson said his trailer is too small, he works full time and he would be leaving his stepfather alone in a residence with a stove and other potentially hazardous devices.
“I would love to have the opportunity for my brother to come and stay with me, but unfortunately we can’t do that, so I have a hard time sympathizing with what you’re saying,” Robert Dunn said. “This isn’t going in our favor … to sit there and make excuses why he can’t live there doesn’t sit with me. It makes it hard. Every day he’s out, he’s a threat, and people say (they’re) glad he has a lot of backing from the community. That’s more than we have.”
The issue poses a conundrum for the court, Fernandez-Ely said.
“The outrage people feel for the system is real,” she said. “I’m part of the system … and I wish we could do justice. I wish we could have mercy, and I wish we weren’t harsh or lenient, and I could come up with that perfect resolution.”
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