Editorial: D.A. goes soft on law in Ackerman case
February 25, 2014
It was a dry summer, and the emergency sirens sounded immediately following the Grand Lake fireworks — surely they must mean fire.
But it wasn't fire. A family was in critical harm.
The father of an Estes Park family of 10 was pronounced dead at the scene. Four other family members were transported via helicopters to Denver hospitals with serious injuries.
A driver with a history of assault charges who had consumed six to seven beers that night before getting behind the wheel — his two young children and his wife also in the car — was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, child abuse and possession of a weapon in the vehicle while intoxicated.
Family members were crossing the road to get to their vehicle; that same family now in deep mourning.
A building contractor and Scout leader, Greg Westley was the second son to be taken prematurely from parents Connie and John Westley. Greg's younger brother Matthew died in a skiing accident in Steamboat in 2000.
"It was Greg who helped us learn to live with loss," Greg's parents said in statements they wrote to the court. "We know how difficult it is to recover from grief and we deeply regret that Greg's wife and eight children must now endure this unjust struggle. We are most concerned that Greg's death not be taken lightly by those responsible for passing judgment on the person responsible for his death."
Consumed in grief, the Westley family chose not to testify in court, rejecting the pain it might cause, shielding its youngest members from reliving the tragedy.
The D.A.'s plea deal — one year in jail with four-year deferred sentences of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault charges dropped conditional on completion of supervised probation, alcohol treatment and community service — is intended to strike a balance between the law and the Colorado State Patrol's opinions about the case, that the driver, Lucus Ackerman, could not have avoided the fatal collision regardless of his condition that night.
"This case is unusual in that Colorado State Patrol's accident reconstruction expert concluded that the tragic collision left one man dead and three persons seriously injured would have occurred even if Mr. Ackerman had been sober," District Attorney Brett Barkey said in statements about the case. "Even so, the Colorado legislature has determined that in order to deter drunk driving, any individual driving under the influence will be held strictly liable for any death or serious injury that occurs, even if there is no bad driving."
If the prosecution were to follow the full extent of the law for the charges filed against Ackerman, he could be looking at four to 12 years in prison for the vehicular homicide charge and two to six years in prison for each of the four vehicular assault charges, totaling between 12 and 36 years in prison.
The fact remains that the driver chose to get behind the wheel, putting his own family and others in extreme danger. The result of that decision was the death of another man and the injury of others. Is jaywalking really an offense to be weighed in balance with drunk driving, as the prosecution suggests?
"Appropriate balance" — as considered by the D.A. — is not appropriate when really one individual determined the fate of this collision by choosing to break the law and drive that night. Judge Mary Hoak of the 14th Judicial District should consider this when determining Ackerman's sentence.