Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack Smith decided Friday to take the weekend to decide the particulars in the sentencing of Gregory Fulling, who faces seven to 11 years in prison for a first-degree assault charge stemming from a September 2011 drunken driving accident in which he permanently injured an Anchorage police officer.
“This is a significant case, and I need to give it the attention it deserves,” Smith said.
The judge will decide whether to accept the state’s recommendation of 11 years behind bars with two suspended, or allow the defense’s motion to send the case to a three-judge panel.
Public defender James Ferguson argued sentencing his client in the presumptive range is manifestly unjust, in part because Fulling isn’t a typical offender. The 52-year-old Marysville, Wash., man is retired military and holds a master’s degree in biology. He was in Alaska to study beluga whales in Cook Inlet for the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority at the time of the crash.
Ferguson also argued Fulling has accepted responsibility and moved to fight an alcohol addiction without an order from the court. Fulling posted bail several months after the crash and has completed a long-term alcoholism treatment program, the public defender said.
Wrong way on Glenn for 14 miles
Fulling was too drunk in the early morning hours of Sept. 23, 2011, to realize he was driving on the wrong side of the divided Glenn Highway. He drove a rental sedan north in the southbound lanes for 14 miles, according to court testimony, forcing at least three other drivers off the road.
The state originally charged Fulling with three additional counts for endangering those drivers, but the charges were dropped as part of a plea agreement.
However, the state stuck with the felony assault charge because officer Randy Hughes’ career in law enforcement effectively ended after his attempt to find and stop the drunken driver.
Hughes was responding to reports about a wrong-way driver when the crash happened, police said at the time. He was able to avoid a head-on collision by veering left, but the impact on the passenger side of his patrol vehicle pushed it nearly 80 yards before it came to a rest in a ditch.
News reports from the day of the crash say Hughes sustained multiple fractures. The worst injury was a crushed foot, Hughes said outside the courtroom. He is now able to walk well, with an occasional slight limp. He has had five foot operations and will have another this summer to remove screws, which should relieve some pain, he said.
‘Both lucky to be here’
Hughes took the stand Friday and detailed how his life has changed since the night of the crash. He loved to run and fish, neither of which he can do anymore. He’s been told the damage to his foot is permanent. He also said it’s been hard on his children, and he misses his co-workers at the Anchorage Police Department.
Despite the physical and emotion turmoil, he forgave Fulling.
“Me and Mr. Fulling are both lucky to be here today. ... I always think about you and hope things work out for you,” the former officer said.
Another Anchorage officer, Daniel Sturkie, arrived on scene moments after the crash. Sturkie testified Friday as a state witness that he’d first spotted only Fulling’s rental car; flames were coming from under its hood. He broke the window of the rental car and pulled Fulling out, he said.
Sturkie was not able to check on his fellow officer until medical responders arrived on scene.
“I didn’t know if officer Hughes was alive at that point, but I had to help the person who may have still been alive,” Sturkie said, fighting back sobs.
Value of offender's efforts
Assistant district attorney Jack McKenna said during the state’s closing statements that Fulling ended Hughes’ career. He objected to sending the case to a three-judge panel, arguing that the conduct of cases involving drunken driving resulting in deaths and those that cause serious injuries “are exactly the same.”
“It’s only the good luck both men had that it’s not a murder case,” McKenna said.
The prosecutor said the defendant’s actions were the height of recklessness and an 11-year sentence was appropriate, despite Fulling’s efforts at rehabilitation.
Public defender Ferguson emphasized those efforts to the judge. He argued very few offenders complete long-term programs while out on bail, adding treatment usually requires a court order. Fulling is committed to changing his life and it shows through his actions, Ferguson said.
McKenna had argued that a tragic event forced Fulling’s hand and that’s why he committed himself to change. Ferguson blasted the prosecutor for what he interpreted as failing to recognize the bigger picture.
“It sends a message that society doesn’t value those efforts in offenders,” he said, though he contended there are others who believe drunken drivers who cause physical harm should be locked up for life.
Ferguson stated he’d prefer not to propose a sentence because he hoped the judge would send his client’s case to a panel, but he nonetheless suggested a sentence of three and a half years, half the minimum of the presumptive range, after arguing the court mitigate the sentence for the aforementioned reasons.
Years of suffering
The most emotional moments in Friday’s sentencing hearing occurred when Fulling addressed the court, bringing tears to both himself and his victim.
Fulling said over muffled cries that he’d been advised to treat severe depression with intensive therapy. Instead, he took to the bottle. He said he wasn’t trying to downplay the harm he’d caused but rather let the court understand his mind set at the time of the crash.
“Officer Hughes, I know there’s a day that does not go by that you do not suffer. ... I wake up every day revolted and disgusted at the person in the mirror,” Fulling said.
He also told Officer Sturkie he was forever in his debt for saving his life.
Outside the courtroom, Hughes said he thought Fulling was sincere in actions and words.
“I don’t wish harm on anyone, but people have to be held accountable for their actions,” he said.