Crime & Courts

Anchorage teen receives 1-year sentence in hit-and-run death of bicyclist

Alexandra Ellis, who killed bicyclist Jeff Dusenbury while driving intoxicated in South Anchorage last year, was sentenced Wednesday to a year in prison.

During Ellis' sentencing hearing Wednesday there was tearful testimony from the family of Dusenbury and additional testimony from several witnesses for the defense. Ellis pleaded guilty in May to killing Dusenbury while driving under the influence July 19, 2014.

The full sentence handed down by Superior Court Judge Michael Wolverton was three years with two suspended on a charge of criminally negligent homicide, and a consecutive 360 days with 350 suspended for DUI.

"If you don't make permanent, life-lasting changes, this will have all been for nothing," Wolverton said to Ellis as the hearing came to a close.

Ellis, who was 17 when Dusenbury was killed, had just driven a friend home after throwing a party at her parents' house while they were away. While driving in reverse down a road, she struck and killed Dusenbury, 51, who was riding his bicycle, according to the state's sentencing memorandum. After backing into Dusenbury, Ellis left the scene of the accident, police said.

The plea deal galvanized Dusenbury's broad circle of friends and colleagues -- and members of the general public -- to argue for harsher penalties in the case. Hundreds protested the deal during a "Justice for Jeff" rally shortly after the agreement was announced.

Dusenbury's supporters also gathered outside the courthouse Friday, the first day of sentencing, and packed the Boney Courthouse for the two-day sentencing hearing in downtown Anchorage.

ADVERTISEMENT

On Wednesday, District Attorney Clint Campion asked the court to accept the sentence recommended under the agreement.

He said the state's deal shouldn't reflect negatively on Dusenbury, and he understood the family's grief. However, the state's obligation was appropriately sentencing defendants while considering all the evidence, he said.

Ellis showed "a great deal of poor judgment when she fled the scene. Frankly, there's a callousness to it," Campion said.

However, the teen's actions after the fatal collision showed she accepted what she'd done, Campion said. It was because of Ellis' statements to police about 13 minutes after the accident that she was in court Wednesday, being prosecuted.

Victims' rights attorney Trina Sears said over the course of multiple hearings, the feelings of Dusenbury's family had softened on the plea deal. At first, the family didn't think one year was enough, Sears said.

"Now, they just want it to be over and move on with their lives," she said.

The court's hands were tied due to the plea deal, she said.

Defense attorney William Ingaldson argued justice isn't determined by the loudest voices or the cost of attorneys. Sentences are determined based on laws established by the Alaska Legislature and the decisions of the Alaska Court of Appeals, he said.

The state's decision to enter into a plea deal was the right one, Ingaldson said.

He asked the judge to consider what led to Dusenbury's death. Ellis didn't get behind the wheel the night she'd been partying. She woke up to take a friend home, possibly thinking she was sober, he said. A blood sample taken from Ellis at 12:51 p.m. the day of the accident returned a .10 blood alcohol content, according to sentencing memorandum filed by the state.

"Would she have done anything differently if she wasn't drinking?" Ingaldson asked. "It's likely she didn't see Mr. Dusenbury."

The defense also called an expert witness last week to argue Dusenbury had been biking at 30 to 35 mph when he collided with Ellis' truck.

During her statements to the court, Ellis lamented that her life was going in the wrong direction before Dusenbury died.

The death wiped away her chance to be a kid, she said, adding she was all right with it.

"I really think I'm supposed to do something meaningful with this tragedy," she said.

In her own tearful statement to the court, Jeff Dusenbury's daughter Madisen Holder-Dusenbury said her father's death haunts her every day. Ellis' decision to drive drunk killed not only Dusenbury, but his family too, she said.

She said her father was more than just an avid cyclist or an anonymous victim.

ADVERTISEMENT

"He taught me to live and enjoy life and not care what other people thought," Holder-Dusenbury said.

"Ellis took a lot of things from me. They're things she'll be able to have despite her sentence," she said.

Like Dusenbury's other loved ones who spoke in court, Holder-Dusenbury echoed frustration over the hit-and-run charge dismissed in the plea deal. She asked the judge to restore justice to the state's court system.

Both Holder-Dusenbury and Ellis sought the embrace of family and openly wept as court recessed for a break Wednesday afternoon.

Ellis later cried again as her father Maurice Ellis spoke before the court and contended Jeff Dusenbury saved his daughter's life.

"I'm proud that she understands what her role is. She is very remorseful," Maurice Ellis said.

"The only thing she can focus on is doing right by Jeff." That includes committing to treatment, being a good person and continuing her education, he said.

Defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald started Wednesday's hearing by calling licensed counselor and psychologist Dr. Allen Blair. The expert testimony centered on a Blair's psychological evaluation of Ellis, which included forensic tests, two interviews conducted earlier this month and a review of documents, including the police report of the fatal accident.

ADVERTISEMENT

Blair testified Ellis met the criteria for three "substance use disorders." Those substances included alcohol, marijuana and stimulants. However, it has been some time since she used stimulants, he said.

While no serious personality disorders were diagnosed, Blair said Ellis scored high on a test detecting post-traumatic stress disorder. The stress was brought on by killing Dusenbury, he said.

Answering whether the 18-year-old could succeed in treatment, Blair said she could if she continued to surround herself with "healthy people."

Blair contended that Ellis shouldn't be tried as an adult.

"She would better be served under the juvenile justice system," Blair said.

The defense made several motions to try Ellis as a juvenile. Fitzgerald argued the juvenile justice system was better equipped to rehabilitate Ellis and address the issues that led to the criminal case.

Campion said a move to juvenile court would limit judge Wolverton's oversight of the case. It's likely the defense would have argued further imprisonment of Ellis was unwarranted, he said.

Wolverton rejected the defense's desire to move Ellis' case to juvenile court.

The defense called two other witnesses on Wednesday. One of them, counselor Jennifer Choquette, who is currently working with Ellis, said the young woman has demonstrated a high motivation for change. Ellis' actions demonstrate a better chance at a life of sobriety, she said.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

Sponsored