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Plea deal for Ellis in Anchorage fatal hit-and-run sends the wrong message

  • Author: Brian Litmans
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published May 11, 2015

On March 5, I was returning home from dinner out. We were only a few blocks from home when we saw a BMX bike in the middle of the road and a child lying on the side of the road with a couple kids standing around him. They were waving us down. We pulled over, checked on the child and called 911 -- a child was hurt with unknown internal injuries and whoever hit him was long gone. He was lucky and ended up with non-life threatening injuries. But how could someone hit a kid and just drive off? I was outraged.

Last summer, I was standing in a park reconstructing the scenes of a horrible tragedy that resulted in the death of Jeff Dusenbury. And now I was again confronted with the reality that some in our society lack an internal moral compass and can act in such inhumane ways.

We talk a lot as a society about how we have zero tolerance for some acts like a hit and run -- where a pedestrian or bicyclist is hit and the motorist takes off, leaving them to possibly die. I don't think anyone would consider that acceptable behavior or just a "mistake." So on May 4, I went to the court to watch Alexandra Ellis change her plea to guilty, acknowledging her culpability for killing Jeff. I thought this was a move in the right direction. But the news from the district attorney about a proposed plea they were working out with the defendant hit like a ton of bricks. The proposal -- one year in jail with two more years suspended -- was shocking.

Ellis was driving on a Saturday and had just dropped a friend off at a house near Spruce Park – a neighborhood park that sees lots of pedestrian and bicycle use and is on a dead end road. She put the truck in reverse to back out but she didn't just slowly "back up" (as the news has reported). Instead, she hit the gas and accelerated backwards. She then cut the wheel and began turning. The speed and sharp turning were fast enough to leave 10 feet of skid marks on the pavement. Then she hit Jeff. He had no time to react and could not have anticipated what Ellis was going to do.

But the facts showing how utterly reckless Ellis' actions were don't stop there. After hitting Jeff, Ellis then ran over a 10-by-10 wood park post (buried 3 feet into the ground) and another 40 feet into Spruce Park before she came to a stop. She then put the car in drive and fled the scene. By this time, a neighbor had already rushed to Jeff's aid. She yelled at Ellis to stop. Ellis looked at both Jeff and the neighbor and drove off, leaving Jeff to die. Ellis had blown .10 later that morning, after she was found at her house by APD.

I'm not one who thinks being behind bars for decades is necessarily a good thing for the criminal or society. But our criminal justice system is intended to ensure that the sentence matches the crime. There are two simple reasons for this. First, the sentence is meant as a punishment. Second, the sentence is meant to be severe enough that it would deter the behavior from being repeated by the defendant or anyone else. The sentence has to send a message to society that enforces these elements. But here, one year in jail fails on both counts and is downright offensive to the family and friends of Jeff. And it, importantly, does nothing to indicate that we indeed have zero tolerance for hit and runs. What does it say to all of us that someone can hit a person, kill them, drive off and be subject to one year in jail? The penalty doesn't match the crime and we have done nothing to show all of Anchorage that we are serious about things like driving under the influence, killing someone and leaving them there to die. Sentences like the one proposed by the state will do nothing to deter future reckless and inhumane behavior.

I know some say her life shouldn't be thrown away because she is young and it was a mistake. Did people have the same sentiments for Stacey Graham? He, just 33, was drunk and killed two young girls walking on a sidewalk on Abbott Road in 2013. Graham was sentenced to 40 years, with eight suspended, for second-degree murder. Here, a 17-year-old was driving drunk, killed someone and, even more egregiously, drove off and left the victim to die. The state astonishingly has dropped the charge of leaving the scene. So, does a three-year sentence with two suspended sound just?

If you are not sure, what if it was your child, wife, husband, brother or sister? What if it was your best friend? What would you expect a proper sentence to look like? If you think one year in jail wouldn't satisfy you, wouldn't serve as a deterrent, and wouldn't help us all establish that we have zero tolerance for such careless and inhumane acts, then you should speak up. Because right now, the message the justice system is telling all of us is that we live in a society where it isn't that big a deal to kill a bicyclist and flee the scene. If we don't collectively speak up, we have done little to stop hit and runs and take requisite measures to protect us all from such abhorrent and negligent acts.

You can sign a petition if you want to speak up and can support efforts to pass a vulnerable-user law, like those that are being passed across the country and often include mandatory minimum sentences for drivers convicted of leaving the scene of a fatal crash. There will also be a rally for Jeff on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Spruce Park in Anchorage.

Brian Litmans is president of Bike Anchorage, an organization dedicated to fostering a more bike-friendly Anchorage by striving to make biking fun, safe and accessible to more people.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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