A Gold Hill woman tearfully apologized in court today for her role in a 2016 crash that killed her 6-year-old daughter.
Necia Marie Hanson, 28, admitted she failed to properly restrain Bella Keesee, 6, and had consumed "one shot" of alcohol before the crash, which occurred April 16, 2016, on Blackwell Road. Hanson was speeding and had just passed another vehicle when she hit a semitrailer traveling in the opposite direction, killing her daughter and injuring her son.
"I ask myself if Bella'd be alive if I hadn't taken that shot," Hanson said during her sentencing today in Jackson County Circuit Court. "Today I'd never do that."
Circuit Judge Lorenzo Mejia ordered Hanson, who is five months' pregnant, to begin her prison sentence immediately.
Mejia said he read pleas for leniency from Hanson's family, but said there's "nothing else I can do." Manslaughter in the second degree is a Measure 11 crime that carries a 75-month mandatory minimum prison sentence.
"I gave you the benefit of every doubt," Mejia said, saying he'd considered the more severe first-degree manslaughter charge that was later dropped. "Sending you to prison gives me no joy."
Hanson apologized to her family and authorities for making false statements to police that the semitrailer was in her lane at the time of the crash, saying she "couldn't come to terms with the fact that the death of my daughter was my fault." She also apologized to Bella's father, saying she tried to be a good mother.
"The one day I wasn't a good mom was the day that mattered most," Hanson said.
Hanson said she'd been ready to take responsibility for some time, but feared an apology during her bench trial held last week would seem hollow. Hanson didn't speak during the trial, in which Mejia found her guilty of second-degree manslaughter and third-degree assault, along with misdemeanor fourth-degree assault.
Prior to Hanson's sentencing, her lawyer, Peter Carini, asked Mejia to reconsider Hanson's manslaughter verdict on grounds that the crime of criminally negligent homicide was more appropriate. He pointed to Hanson's lack of criminal history and lack of evidence showing Hanson "unlawfully and recklessly" caused Bella's death. Mejia said the timing was unorthodox, and that such motions are typically submitted in writing.
"I'm asking the court to reconsider it now," Carini said.
Mejia denied the motion, saying he considered witness reports of high-speed driving prior to the crash ahead of other toxicology or physical evidence.
Following the hearing, Carini said that a judge has the flexibility to consider lesser charges in a bench trial, an argument Carini said he made at closing arguments. Carini said he didn't believe evidence could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hanson understood she was engaging in risky behavior.
"My opinion was that no such evidence would exist," Carini said. "I still maintain that."
Three children were in the back of Hanson's 1995 Honda Accord station wagon and only two car seats, according to Deputy District Attorney Nick Geil, who said Bella was sitting in the middle of the back seat unbelted. Hanson's two sons were properly restrained, he said. Bernie was 4 at the time of the crash and suffered minor cuts and scrapes. Chancelor was 2 and suffered no injuries.
Had Bella at least worn the vehicle's seat belt, she wouldn't have been ejected from the car, according to Geil. The Honda's impact with the semitrailer caused the Honda to spin, throwing Bella out the driver-side rear passenger window while the truck was colliding into the side of the car.
Carini said he argued at trial that Bella was sitting in the front seat before the crash. He used crash scene photos showing that the front passenger seat belt was latched, he said.
"It's just a tragedy," Carini said.
In court, Hanson said that she intends to "give back to the community" by speaking out about car seat safety, adding that she started a blog.
Geil said prosecutors argued for a more severe manslaughter charge at the trial last week, saying that speed, the lack of child restraints and evidence of intoxicants in Hanson's system pointed to circumstances "manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life."
Hanson had an amount of alcohol less than the legal limit and a stimulant for which she didn't have a prescription in her system. Mejia acquitted Hanson on the more severe first-degree manslaughter charge, along with the misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence of intoxicants.
Geil said he visited the scene of the crash, calling the case "heartbreaking" to prosecute.
"I'm satisfied with the result, but it doesn't give me joy," Geil said.
— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.