Judge rejects plea for employer charged in trench death
Negotiations that could allow an employer charged in a 2019 workplace death to avoid trial continue in Grand County District Court, but it seems unlikely the defendant will be able to avoid significant jail time given the judge’s feelings about the case.
Bryan D. Johnson, 52, was charged in August 2019 after one of his workers, Rosario “Chayo” Martinez-Lopez, died in a trench collapse on a worksite in Granby. Johnson was charged with manslaughter, but a proposed plea agreement would have had him admit to criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.
The plea outlined four years of supervised probation, up to 90 days in jail, 400 hours of community service and a $5,000 donation split between Habitat for Humanity Grand County and Grand County Search and Rescue, as well as requirements to attend Workers’ Memorial Day and worker safety seminars.
However, citing the deferred jail time, Judge Mary Hoak rejected that agreement in December and sent Johnson back to negotiate a new plea with the prosecutor. Johnson can still take his case to trial.
On Thursday, attorneys and Hoak met for an update and the attorneys expressed the need for more time as they continue to work on a new deal.
Hoak nixed the proposed plea agreement in December, expressing her hesitations and fears about what message it could send to the community.
“My concern, of course, stems from the fact that there’s a death in this matter,” Hoak told the court in October. “If there weren’t a death, I’d be very open to this plea. My bottom line is — what are we telling the community? That you can violate (Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety requirements) and it just isn’t that bad?”
Johnson was on site at the time of the death and, according to previous court proceedings, had never dug a trench as deep or long as the one on the development site. He also wasn’t trained on how to do so, nor did he meet OSHA requirements for the trench.
Both the defense attorney and Chief Deputy District Attorney Kathryn Dowdell previously spoke in support of the plea agreement due to the complicated nature of the case. Dowdell noted that there is no precedent for this case in Colorado and the victim’s wife approved of the agreement.
Despite arguments from both the prosecution and defense that the plea agreement was not only appropriate, but would send a message that Grand County takes action against employers who don’t provide safe work environments, Hoak disagreed.
In her rejection of the plea agreement, Hoak was clear she’s not opposed to a plea agreement nor the reduced charges, just the deferred sentence.
“This court is unwilling to send a message to the community that such negligence resulting in the clearly avoidable death of a human being is satisfied with a deferred judgment and sentence and, very likely, the ultimate dismissal of the felony homicide charge,” the motion says.
Johnson is scheduled to appear in court again on May 27.
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Fifth Judicial District Attorney Heidi McCollum confirmed Monday, Oct. 18, that her office filed a single charge of felony menacing against the district’s Chief Judge Mark Thompson on Saturday, Oct. 16.