DA to appeal judge’s rejection of Ackerman plea deal
March 27, 2014
HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS — The District Attorney's Office is appealing 14th Judicial District Court Judge Mary Hoak's decision to reject a plea deal in the case involving Lucas Paul Ackerman.
The plea bargain that was struck between the District Attorney's Office and the defense in the case would have required Ackerman to serve one year in jail for DUI, with a four-year deferred judgment on one count of vehicular homicide and three counts of vehicular assault.
The case is now "in limbo," according to Assistant District Attorney Han Ng, who is handling the case, until the transcripts of the Feb. 28 sentencing hearing are complete and can be sent to the Colorado Supreme Court with a petition to appeal the judge's decision.
Hoak approved a motion for a stay on the case until the District Attorney's Office can file the appeal, and she vacated a March 25 arraignment hearing related to the case.
The Colorado Supreme Court reviews cases at their own pace, said Ng, meaning there is no timeline to when the case will be reviewed by the Colorado Supreme Court.
Ng estimated it could take up to a year for the Colorado Supreme Court to review the case, maybe even more, he said.
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The Colorado Supreme Court can choose to hear the case or they can reject hearing the case if they agree with the judge's decision.
If the Colorado Supreme Court chooses not to take the case, it will return to the arraignment stage in the 14th Judicial District Court, where the District Attorney's Office can choose to take the case to trial, work out another plea agreement to present to the judge, or dismiss all or some of the charges against Ackerman.
If the Colorado Supreme Court chooses to take the case, the Supreme Court Justices will hear arguments from the defense and prosecution, as well as a representative of the judge who will argue for the judge's decision to reject the plea deal.
DA: Deal was 'act of grace'
The District Attorney's Office will argue that Hoak abused her discretion as a judge representing the judicial branch in rejecting the plea agreement negotiated by the District Attorney's Office, which represents the executive branch.
District Attorney Brett Barkey commented he viewed the plea agreement as an "act of grace" by the executive branch during the Feb. 28 sentencing hearing.
Under Colorado law, a driver can be held strictly liable for any injuries or death caused while driving under the influence, meaning the prosecution does not have to establish any evidence that the accident was caused by the driver.
"I find that this plea bargain diminishes the seriousness of this crime," Hoak 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 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 District Attorney's Office stated during the Feb. 28 sentencing hearing that they believed if Ackerman were charged with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, he would be held accountable for felonies that weren't necessarily his fault.
"I understand why the bargain was struck, and I understand the accident reconstruction, but the law accounts for that and the law says that there need not be evidence of fault," Hoak said at the Feb. 28 hearing. "It is drinking and driving, and it is strict liability."
If Ackerman were to be held strictly liable for all of the charges being brought against him, he could potentially serve 12 years in prison.
The charges and plea agreement spawn from a July 4 crash that took place near Grand Lake on Highway 34, in which Ackerman hit and killed one pedestrian and seriously 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.
Reid Tulley can be reached at 970-887-3334