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Plea deal for teen in hit-and-run death of Anchorage cyclist sparks backlash

A plea agreement that would give a teenage girl a one-year sentence for a hit-and-run collision that killed a well-known Anchorage bicyclist last July is generating mounting outrage, with an online petition garnering thousands of signatures and a rally planned for Tuesday.

But it is not without precedent, with at least two other Anchorage teens who killed people while driving receiving similar sentences in recent years.

Last week Alexandra Ellis, 17, pleaded guilty to a criminally negligent homicide and DUI charges in the death of Jeff Dusenbury.

Prosecutors say Ellis was driving the pickup truck that hit Dusenbury, 51, in a South Anchorage residential area as he began a Saturday morning bike ride on July 19. They contend she left the scene, and blew a 0.101 on a breathalyzer test when police found her at home two hours after the collision.

Attorneys on both sides of the case said in court they had agreed to a prison sentence of three years, with two suspended, on the criminally negligent homicide charge.

Brian Litmans, the president of advocacy group Bike Anchorage, called the plea agreement a "a gross miscarriage of justice," in a news release announcing a rally to be held Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Spruce Park, where Dusenbury died.

The "Justice for Jeff" rally and online petition -- so far signed by nearly 2,500 people -- ask Attorney General Craig Richards to "reject any sentencing recommendation and let the judge decide the appropriate sentence for Alexandra Ellis."

"The very idea that an intoxicated driver could run down an innocent victim, flee the scene without rendering aid or taking responsibility for her actions, and will likely serve only a one-year sentence is deeply disturbing and unjust," wrote Litmans.

Dusenbury's wife Melissa Holder said she was blindsided by the proposed sentence and learned of it only minutes before the hearing.

Holder said she was aware that an original manslaughter charge would be reduced to criminally negligent homicide, but not that a charge of failing to assist an injured person after an accident would be dropped.

"While I was relieved (Ellis) took responsibility I don't feel that one year in jail is the right sentence," she said.

District Attorney Clint Campion said that he and the defense attorney in the case, William Ingaldson, had been negotiating for months.

Ingaldson did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the plea deal but did say "there's a lot more to this story than people know."

Campion said he'd met with and spoken to Dusenbury's wife and daughter and that they were aware of the general terms of the plea agreement, but not of the specifics of the sentence until shortly before the change of plea hearing last week.

Those details were being worked out up until the last minute, he said.

"I recognize that the plea agreement that I entered into has frustrated many people," he said.

In a plea agreement, a defendant agrees to a publicly admit their guilt in exchange for a reduced charge or negotiated sentence, avoiding a trial.

In general terms, a plea agreement is more than just a recommendation to the judge, said Office of Victims' Rights attorney Trina Sears. It is more of a contract between both sides.

"Typically, the courts don't go against the contract unless it is so outside the norm of what's reasonable," she said.

Attorneys enter into plea agreements for reasons that involve a complex set of considerations, including resolving the case in a timely manner and the evidence that exists to take a case to trial, Campion said.

In the Ellis case, he acknowledged "potential issues for our prosecution" that influence the plea agreement but declined to go into specifics.

The sentence agreement is "in line with what we've seen with young drivers involved in fatal collisions," Campion said.

In several recent cases where a teenager killed someone with a car in Anchorage, the defendant ultimately pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and served a year in jail.

Criminally negligent homicide is a B felony, which means it comes with a possible sentence of 10 years in prison.

The charge stands in contrast to the a more serious manslaughter charge, which carries with it the requirement that the defendant's behavior be found "reckless," legally a higher standard to prove than "negligence."

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Wolverton could reject the plea agreement at Ellis' final sentencing hearing, scheduled for this summer, said Campion.

Attorneys say it is unusual for a judge to override a plea agreement.

In 2013, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack Smith did just that in the case of Ashley Bashore, a 19-year-old who hit and killed 28-year-old Hubert Tunuchuk as he walked on the Tudor Road overpass in 2011. Bashore drove away from the scene and was texting before the collision, prosecutors contended.

In 2012 Bashore pleaded guilty in a deal that would have given her three years with two suspended.

But Smith said the sentence was too lenient.

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

He ended up sentencing Bashore to 18 months in prison.

She was released from jail around the beginning of 2015 but soon faced an unrelated perjury charge, KTUU reported in February.

Another teenager, Murphy M. Gross, was sentenced to a year in prison in a distracted-driving collision that killed a 27-year-old mother of two in February 2013.

The prosecutor in that case, Dan Shorey, recommended a three-year sentence with two years suspended for the criminally negligent homicide charge.

The Department of Corrections' inmate tracking program shows that Gross is now on "community supervision" by the probation and parole department.

Attorneys caution that the facts of every case are singular and it's difficult to compare.

But in contrast is the case of Tex Daniels II, a 22-year-old Chugiak man who struck and seriously injured a couple walking home from a New Year's Eve concert on Jan. 1, 2012. Both survived.

Daniels II pleaded guilty to a single count of first-degree assault -- an A level felony -- and a misdemeanor drunken driving charge in a deal with prosecutors.

Judge Philip Volland sentenced Daniels to seven years in prison, calling the crime too reckless and serious to warrant a lesser term.

Today, Daniels continues to serve his sentence in an Anchorage halfway house.

Correction: This article originally stated Jeff Dusenbury was killed on July 17. He was killed July 19.

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