The sentencing of Alexandra Ellis, the driver accused of killing bicyclist Jeff Dusenbury in a hit-and-run that shocked the city, began in an Anchorage courtroom Friday but remained unresolved as witnesses testified through the afternoon hearing.
Superior Court Judge Michael Wolverton said he would decide Monday when the sentencing hearing would resume.
In the Friday hearing, an accident investigator hired by the defense suggested that Dusenbury was speeding on his bicycle and that Ellis' vehicle was barely moving. But Dusenbury's friends and family ridiculed those conclusions.
Dusenbury had accumulated a broad circle of friends and colleagues through his biking and work at Food Services of America, and along with his family, some of them showed up for the hearing Friday.
Dusenbury was 51, married, and the father of a child when he was killed on July 19, 2014, when Ellis backed into him then left the scene of the accident, police said. Officers found Ellis at her home, less than a half-mile from where she hit Dusenbury; her blood alcohol content was 0.10 more than two hours after the accident, prosecutors said. The legal limit is 0.08.
Ellis, then 17, was charged as an adult with manslaughter and other crimes. She pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminally negligent homicide in May. A felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident without assisting an injured person was dismissed, which Dusenbury's family has expressed frustration over.
As a first-time felony offender, Ellis faces a maximum of three years for the criminally negligent homicide charge, though the parties agreed to recommend a one-year jail term.
Bicycling advocates have spoken out against the plea deal as a miscarriage of justice. But a jail term of about a year for teenage defendants who have killed people while driving is not without precedent.
In testimony Friday, the expert witness hired by Ellis' defense asserted Dusenbury himself was speeding on his bicycle and that the accident occurred when he crashed into Ellis' truck.
Defense Attorney William Ingaldson called accident reconstruction expert Jay Smith as the first witness. Smith testified about his on-scene examination of the accident.
Photos of the scene were shown in the courtroom, including one of a mountain bike lying in the grass next to the road with debris scattered around it. Smith said the bike was constructed with lightweight carbon fiber and had narrow tires. He said the bike wouldn't perform well on 84th Avenue, where the fatal impact happened. The street has potholes and mixed paving, the photos showed.
Audible sounds of exasperation came from Dusenbury's family when the question about the bike's performance was answered. Ellis sat straight-faced, swiveling slightly in her chair during portions of testimony.
Smith said tire marks confirmed his estimate that Ellis was moving no faster than 11 mph. He said Dusenbury was traveling about 30 to 35 mph. Friends laughed at the estimation, which Smith admitted was not an exact science.
He based that speed on Dusenbury's injuries and the bike being in top gear, as well as the damage to the driver's side of Ellis' truck. Smith testified that Dusenbury struck the truck, which was turning at a 60 degree angle.
District Attorney Clint Campion asked Smith what other experts may testify as a reasonable range of speed. Smith responded that 35 mph would be the high end of Dusenbury's estimated speed.
Campion also established Dusenbury had been bicycling two feet to the right of the center of the street.
"He was riding in the appropriate lane of travel?" Campion asked.
Smith said Dusenbury was.
A short time later, Melissa Holder, Dusenbury's wife, fought back tears as she recalled the morning her husband died. She said they had planned to go vehicle shopping for their daughter and barbecue with friends to close the day.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine his life would be over in less than an hour," Holder said.
She lamented that Dusenbury wouldn't be present at her daughter's wedding in November.
Ellis' choices were inexcusable, she said. Sentencing the 18-year-old to only a year in prison would send the wrong message to the community.
"It's hard for me to accept her remorse," Holder said.
Mike Vania, who described Dusenbury as his best friend, said his life will never be the same. He and Dusenbury both worked in sales, and exercise was their way to escape.
From the time Ellis was charged with Dusenbury's death, Vania and others wanted a sentence that fit the crime, he said. But the court process has left them feeling bewildered and, more recently, outraged.
"The prosecution rolled over and offered a deal that amounted to a slap on the wrist," Vania said.
"The family is asking you (the judge) reject this plea agreement. There is no justice for Jeff in this agreement," he said.
Vania contended the defense attorneys were willing to smear Dusenbury to get Ellis a light sentence. He said the testimony about Dusenbury traveling up to 35 mph showed the defense knew nothing about cycling.
"(Dusenbury) was one mile into a 90-mile bike ride, for god's sake … Why would he be in full sprint in the beginning of this long trip?" he said.
A woman who witnessed the accident spoke before the court as well. Tina Adcox said the defense's arguments were wrong.
"There's no way (Ellis' truck) was coming at 11 miles per hour … The squealing of the (truck) coming so fast that it alerted me," Adcox said.
About an hour before the sentencing began, Dusenbury supporters walked back and forth in front of the Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage holding green signs that read, "Watch out for bicycles" and "Justice for Jeff."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing