Sentencing varies widely in vehicular homicides
John Fullmer III is drawn to the acres of green fields at Grand Junction’s Canyon View Park. It’s there where cherished memories of his son, their time spent coaching youth football together, are most alive.
Fullmer won’t forget his son’s love of the game, his shock of red hair, that he was finally settling down and what a hit he was with the ladies. But even at a fit 6 feet tall and 220 pounds, 23-year-old John Fullmer IV wasn’t invincible.
Despite his loss, the father long ago forgave his son’s killer.
“I don’t know how you turn a chapter in a dead kid’s life,” Fullmer said, scanning the ball fields while drawing in a long breath of crisp fall air. “It’s hard to be real judgmental. My son was just as drunk as Jesse (Reed) was. He could have been driving. My son wasn’t innocent. He knew better. If he was too drunk, he shouldn’t have been out.”
John Fullmer IV was killed Feb. 15 after his best friend, Jesse Reed, rammed their vehicle into a pole along U.S. Highway 6&50.
Both men had been drinking heavily.
Because of the situation, that the men were the best of friends and that Reed had no criminal history, prosecutors agreed to offer probation to Reed at sentencing. Reed, 22, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of vehicular homicide and drunken driving, but Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn rejected the plea agreement that would limit Reed’s sentence to probation. Reed will sit in the Mesa County Jail for up to three months, waiting to start a six-year community-corrections sentence.
Fullmer’s death wasn’t the only one to leave a gap in the Grand Valley. February was particularly lethal for passengers and victims of drunken drivers, with four deaths attributed to drunken drivers in back-to-back weekend crashes.
But each vehicular homicide is different, and the severity of cases differ. Some cases involve victims voluntarily riding with a drunken driver, while other victims are killed without ever knowing the suspect.
Judges have wide latitude in imposing sentences for these charges. Yet, they consider factors such as the relationships between victims and suspects, how drunk a person was while driving, the wishes of the victim’s family and a defendant’s criminal history.
Earlier this month, for instance, Garfield County District Judge Denise Lynch sentenced Stephan Ludwig to three years supervised probation for a guilty plea to vehicular homicide in the drunken-driving death of his girlfriend, Diana Luttrall, 16.
Ludwig, 22, had a history of drinking alcohol, but he did not have a felony record before rolling his vehicle Feb. 26 on Interstate 70. Luttrall was ejected and died at the scene.
“This court is always being criticized for not being consistent,” Lynch said in her ruling, adding that vehicular-homicide cases are “the most difficult for the court.”
Lynch said she considered that Ludwig appeared for every court hearing and that he always seemed remorseful. Lynch so worried about Ludwig’s depression over the incident that she ordered him to receive a mental health evaluation, along with completing a MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) panel and 80 hours of public service.
“He’s going to have to live with the knowledge for the rest of his life that he killed someone,” Lynch said. “That’s a lot to handle.”
Probation, however, is not probable for Derrick Maxfield. The 20-year-old Parachute man faces 16 to 30 years in prison according to terms of a plea agreement. Maxfield pleaded guilty to felony counts of vehicular homicide while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, child abuse resulting in death, vehicular assault while DUI and misdemeanor DUI.
Maxfield’s blood-alcohol content was nearly three times over the legal limit for driving when he sped away Feb. 28 from officers who were attempting to pull him over. He crashed his Honda Civic into a pickup at Fifth Street and North Avenue, killing two of the pickup’s occupants: Shandi Boetel, 21, and her 6-month-old daughter, Natalia Casiano.
Distinctions need to be made between cases such as Reed’s and Ludwig’s versus that of Maxfield’s, Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said.
“There is no type of felony case that has a wider range of what might be appropriate than vehicular homicide,” Hautzinger said. “It can range from highly mitigated to highly aggravated. Reed’s case is way on the mitigated range when the victim and the mitigant are friends. The victim to some extent assumed the risk. Compare that to (the case of Patrick) Strawmatt or Maxfield with completely innocent people who have no idea what was coming.”
According to a Denver Post study of the state’s 202 vehicular-homicide cases between 2005 and early 2009, more than half of the drivers were in their 20s. Six years was the average sentence for defendants sent to prison, but one-third of the defendants were sentenced to less severe sentences, including jail time, community corrections or probation, the newspaper reported.
In cases of vehicular homicide and other reckless-death cases, the wishes of the victim’s family play a role in leniency among plea agreements, Hautzinger said. However, defendants guilty of vehicular homicide will not get off without a felony charge.
That has been the standard in all vehicular-homicide cases in Mesa County except for the one involving Jade Huskey. Huskey, 28, pleaded guilty last month to vehicular homicide, driving while ability impaired and weaving in a drunken-driving crash that killed Molly Gomez on Feb. 26, 2006.
Huskey’s felony vehicular-homicide count is a four-year deferred sentence, meaning it will be expunged from his record if he stays out of trouble for four years. He also was sentenced by Mesa County District Judge Richard Gurley to nine months in jail. But Huskey’s plea was entered after a trial this year that resulted in a hung jury. Jurors were split 6–6 over the verdict. Huskey maintained his innocence, saying he wasn’t driving that night and that Gomez, too, had been drinking. Even Gurley remarked during the sentencing that he couldn’t imagine taking a deferred felony conviction on a vehicular-homicide charge.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it,” Huskey’s defense attorney, Gordon Gallagher, said of his client’s outcome.
“We get this idea that there should be parity across cases. I’m a strong proponent for letting judges making decisions,” he added.
John Fullmer III did not want his son’s killer to suffer unduly. Reed had beaten himself up enough over that night, Fullmer said, adding Reed went to Fullmer’s home in the days after the crash to apologize. Reed and his brother had tattoos done on their backs with Celtic cross designs, memorializing their friend’s death, Fullmer said. Reed also created a memorial for the Fullmers, including the man’s hard hat from where the two worked at a drilling company.
“I look Jesse in the eye, and I know he would trade with John if he could,” Fullmer said.
Fullmer said at first he was upset with Flynn’s ruling, which called for sanctions greater than probation for Reed’s sentence. But after Flynn described his reasoning, that Reed, no matter how good of person he is, should face adequate punishment by the court for killing another person, Fullmer said he began to understand.
His son’s birthday, Oct. 9, was a tough day.
Fullmer is dreading the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“February 15 is the day I’m dreading the most,” he said.