D.A. to dismiss felonies for fatal July 4 Grand Lake collision
June 24, 2014
HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS — The 14th Judicial District Attorney Brett Barkey announced he will move to dismiss all felony counts against Lucas Ackerman in relation to the July 4, 2013, traffic collision which left one dead and four others injured.
District Attorney Brett Barkey announced on June 23 he was prepared to proceed on the remaining counts — driving under the influence and two counts of misdemeanor child abuse for the defendant's children who were in the vehicle with him when he drove drunk that night.
The case is currently set for arraignment on June 30, 2014, in the District Court for Grand County.
"A prosecutor's foremost duty is to do justice," said D.A. Barkey, in statements released June 23. "After consulting closely with law enforcement agencies and the victims, I have concluded that dismissing the felony counts and proceeding only on the misdemeanor counts is what is just in this case."
The 14th Judicial District had appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court an earlier decision on the case handed down by 14th Judicial District Judge Mary Hoak. The Colorado Supreme Court rejected hearing the case.
Because the Colorado Supreme Court chose not to take up the case, it is returning to the arraignment stage in the 14th Judicial District Court, where the District Attorney's Office had a choice between taking the case to trial, working out another plea agreement to present to the judge, or dismissing all or some of the charges against Ackerman.
The D.A. has chosen to dismiss the vehicular homicide charge and three counts vehicular assault charges.
14th Judicial District Assistant District Attorney Han Ng says the facts of the case point to "no causal link between drunkeness and the death," saying the Colorado State Patrol found that at Ackerman's traveling speed of 40 miles per hour westbound that night, there would have been no way for him to avoid the accident, even in a sober state.
A sober driver, Ng said, would have needed twice as much reaction time than Ackerman had. Ackerman had 58.64 feet of perception time when a sober driver needed 94 feet. And assuming maximum breaking, he said, would have needed about 78 more feet in order to stop, with a total of 172 feet of needed distance to see and react to victim Gregory Westley stepping into the road, as seen by eye witnesses. The family of 10 had been watching the fireworks that night, possibly by boat or somewhere lakeside. From Trail Ridge Marina, the family crossed the road to get to the family car parked on the other side of Highway 34.
Between driving under the influence and the accident, "This case is the only case I've ever seen where that causal link isn't there," Ng said. Had Ackerman been a sober driver or had there been a designated driver, "the very consequence that happened that night would still have happened," he said.
"The DUI is still there. We feel he needs to be responsible for DUI," Ng said.
In February, when the case was presented to Judge Hoak, she rejected a plea agreement of one year in jail with a four-year deferred sentences of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault charges dropped conditional on completion of supervised probation, alcohol treatment and community service.
"I find that this plea bargain diminishes the seriousness of this crime," Hoak had said during the Feb. 28 sentencing hearing. "Someone's life was lost. People were seriously injured. The defendant had a high blood-alcohol content, I could venture as far as a very high blood-alcohol content.
"It sends the wrong message to society and to this community," Hoak continued. "It says it's OK to drink and drive and kill someone as long as it wasn't your fault. And that is not the message this court can send to this community."
The District Attorney's Office stated during the Feb. 28 sentencing hearing it believed if Ackerman were charged with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, he would be held accountable for felonies that weren't necessarily his fault. A Colorado State Patrol's reconstruction of the July 4 accident determined the pedestrians hit by Ackerman contributed to the wreck by failing to yield to the right-of-way of Ackerman's vehicle.
The family cited reasons of faith and forgiveness for why they wanted the court to accept the plea deal.
Ng said family members were not all in agreement. The charges the D.A. now proposes align with the former plea deal. If Ackerman pleads guilty, he could end up with one year in jail similar to if the plea agreement had been accepted and he had succeeded with its probation and conditions. "The end result is more or less the same," Ng said.
The original charges and subsequent judge-rejected plea deal spawn from a July 4 crash that took place near Grand Lake on Highway 34, in which Ackerman hit and killed one pedestrian and injured four others while driving under the influence.
Ackerman hit and killed Gregory Westley, of Estes Park, and injured his wife Debbie Westley and three of the Westley children who were 18, 10, and 3 years old at the time of the accident. Ackerman's blood alcohol content was reportedly nearly twice the legal limit at the time of the accident.