Anchorage judge rejects plea deal in fatal hit-and-run

mtheriault@adn.comOctober 19, 2012 

An Anchorage Superior Court judge Friday rejected a plea agreement that would have put a hit-and-run driver behind bars for only a year in the death of a Chefornak man on Easter Sunday last year.

According to charges, Ashley Bashore, then 19, hit Hubert Tunuchuk, 28, as he walked on the Tudor Road overpass above the Seward Highway early on April 24, 2011.

Court filings say that Tunuchuk, who was attending vocational school in Seward, had been drinking and was walking in the road near a narrow sidewalk curb when he was hit.

He died at a hospital three hours later.

Bashore drove away from the scene and later, according to prosecutors, told a friend she had struck a dog.

She was sending text messages on her iPhone before the collision, according to paperwork filed in court by prosecutors.

"OMG OMG OMG," she texted to a friend after the collision.

It took months for police investigators to build a case against her.

In December 2011 Bashore was arrested and charged with felony criminally negligent homicide and failing to help an injured person.

In July 2012 she agreed to plead guilty in a deal that would have given her three years with two suspended, followed by six years of probation. She would also have been banned from owning a cellphone that could be used to send text messages.

Friday's hearing would have finalized that agreement.

Superior Court judge Jack Smith told prosecution and defense attorneys they'd need to "give him the reasons" he should allow the plea agreement.

"I'm not convinced this is in the interest of justice," he said.

Prosecutor Christina Sherman told the judge the deal was appropriate given legislative sentencing guidelines, Bashore's age and lack of a previous criminal record.

Bashore's attorney Rex Butler said his client was young, remorseful and panicked when she hit Tunuchuk.

"She had just turned 19, judge," Butler said. "She obviously freaked out."

Butler alluded to "evidentiary issues" as a factor in the plea agreement. Neither he nor the prosecution elaborated.

Bashore sat quietly during most of the hearing.

When the judge asked if she wanted to make a statement she said only, "I'm sorry for everything," in a soft voice.

The judge said he considered sentencing criteria, including the possibility of rehabilitation for a first-time offender, maintaining community standards and deterring others from committing similar crimes.

One year in jail wasn't enough, he said.

"It still remains that somebody died and somebody didn't stop after hitting them," Smith said. "I have a problem with that."

Members of the Tunuchuk family who had traveled from the Western Alaska village of Chefornak to be at the hearing filled the front row of the courtroom. A Yup'ik language interpreter sat with them.

Tunuchuk's uncle, Geoffery Stauffer, who gave a statement by telephone, said his nephew, known in the family by the nickname "Lepsi," was a bright, beloved son who provided for his family.

"His parents are never going to be made whole," he said. "None of us are."

The Tunuchuks are a large family active in the Catholic church who have worked in commercial fishing and construction, Stauffer said.

Tunuchuk was in Southcentral Alaska because the village had sent him to trade school in Seward to study power plant operations for a job back home. He was in Anchorage visiting friends over Easter weekend when he was killed.

Stauffer, an attorney who has worked on both prosecution and defense sides, said he worried the original plea deal would reinforce a perception that Alaska Native victims are not treated equally by the criminal justice system in Alaska.

Family members had also heard about other cases with vastly different sentencing outcomes.

Earlier this month, Superior Court judge Philip Volland imposed a sentence of seven years in jail for a 22-year-old Chugiak man who hit and seriously injured a couple walking home from a New Year's Eve concert.

Tex Daniels II had pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree assault and one misdemeanor count of drunken driving in a May deal with prosecutors.

Stauffer said the two cases were different and couldn't be compared. But his family had been told by prosecutors that they couldn't expect more than a year of jail time.

"The judge said what I've been saying all along," he said, "It wasn't enough for what those charges were."

Attorneys will now meet to renegotiate a plea deal or move toward a trial, Butler said.

Smith said he didn't take his decision to reject the deal lightly, because it would delay closure for Hubert Tunuchuk's family.

After the judge announced his decision, Bashore's mother approached Tunuchuk's mother and embraced her.

The two women cried together as people filed out of the courtroom.