Judge rejects plea deal in July 4 crash

Reid Tulley
Family and friends of the Westley family pray outside the district courtroom prior to the sentencing hearing for Lucas Ackerman on Friday morning, Feb. 28, at the Grand County Judicial Center in Hot Sulphur Springs.
Byron Hetzler/ | Sky-Hi News

HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS — In an emotional sentencing hearing, 14th Judicial District Court Judge Mary Hoak rejected a plea agreement for Lucas Paul Ackerman, in which he would have served one year in jail for DUI and had a four-year deferred judgment on one count of vehicular homicide and three counts of vehicular assault.

“I find that this plea bargain diminishes the seriousness of this crime,” Hoak said. “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.”

Hoak handed down the judgment following testimony in support of the plea agreement from family members of the deceased, including widow Debbie Westley. The family cited reasons of faith and forgiveness for why they wanted the court to accept the plea deal.

“We believe it sends a strong signal to Mr. Ackerman with the plea bargain,” Westley said. “We don’t want revenge.

“No one comprehends the severity any greater than I do as the surviving wife that will live the rest of my life alone and my children who are fatherless,” Westley said.“…We have come here today for closure and our faith is the most valuable gift we have been given and we choose forgiveness and would like to see it end today.”

After Westley spoke, the Assistant District Attorney Han Ng commented that the District Attorney’s Office doesn’t represent the victim solely but represents all of the people of Colorado.

“The District Attorney’s Office continues to believe that this agreement was a just outcome given the unique facts of this case, and are greatly disappointed in the Court’s decision,” according to a press release from the District Attorney’s Office regarding the outcome of the hearing.

“At this time, the District Attorney’s Office is considering all possible options, including but not limited to: filling an appeal of what we believe to be a usurpation of the prerogatives of the executive branch, setting the case for trial, or dismissing some or all of the pending charges,” the press release said.

During the hearing the prosecution argued that Hoak would be exceeding her role in the judicial branch if she were to reject the plea agreement and force the District Attorney’s Office to prosecute the case.

District Attorney Brett Barkey commented that he viewed the plea agreement as an “act of grace” by the executive branch, which he represents.

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 Debbie Westly and three of the Westley children who were 18, 10 and 3 years old at the time. Ackerman’s blood alcohol content was reportedly nearly twice the legal limit at the time of the accident.

While an investigation of the crash site by the Colorado State Patrol determined the Westley family was in the roadway at the time of the accident and failed to yield to right of way of Ackerman’s vehicle, Colorado law places strict liability on any driver who causes injury or death while driving under the influence.

“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. “It is drinking and driving and it is strict liability.”

Due to the results of the accident reconstruction by the Colorado State Patrol, the prosecution believes that if Ackerman were charged with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, he would be held accountable for felonies that weren’t necessarily his fault.

“I don’t believe the legislature intended there to be any no-fault felonies,” Ng said.

Though the prosecution argued that they were offering a deferred judgment to provide for a balance between the unique facts surrounding the case and what Ackerman could be charged with under Colorado law, Hoak stated she believed the prosecution was skirting the law by offering Ackerman a deferred judgment on the vehicular homicide and vehicular assault charges.

Hoak explained that she also had an issue with Ackerman’s criminal history where he had multiple deferred judgments, including one for a third-degree assault in 2002.

“He has been down this road before,” Hoak said. “And the lesson has not been learned.”

Ackerman also carries a prior DUI from 2002 on his criminal record as well as misdemeanor charges for disorderly conduct and harassment.

Hoak handed down her decision to reject the plea bargain over the cries of the widow, who quickly left the courtroom with her eight children close behind her.

“You need to know, that I have not discounted the feelings of the family in this case and I am not trying to make it worse. I have done what I think is right,” Hoak said.

“I have not ignored what they had to say. But in this case, to be absolutely clear so there is no wondering what I did or why I did it, the court will find these charges are serious, that the criminal history of the defendant is such that he is not appropriate for this plea disposition, that there is a sentencing concession in terms of deference and in terms of concurrent sentencing. While probation recommends I take this agreement I believe it diminishes the serious nature of the crimes, it sends the wrong message to the community and society about these matters and to some extent I believe it gets around the law,” Hoak said.

An emotional Ackerman stopped to apologize to the parents of Gregory Westley after leaving the courtroom.

The hearing took place at the Grand County Judicial Center.

The district attorney may now choose to dismiss the case, appeal the court’s findings, choose to negotiate another plea agreement, or take the case to trial. The next hearing is set for March 25.

Reid Tulley can be reached at 970-887-3334.

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