ROHNERT PARK (CBS SF) — An 18-year-old woman pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge in Sonoma County Superior Court Thursday morning for the death a 2-year old girl she struck with her car in a Rohnert Park crosswalk last year while texting on her phone.
The maximum penalty for misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without malice is one year in the county jail.
However, during a meeting with attorneys in his chambers Thursday morning, Judge Bradford DeMeo indicated that he will not initially impose any county jail time on the teen, Kaitlyn Dunaway, and will suspend a six-month jail sentence, defense attorney Chris Andrian said.
Instead, DeMeo will likely require Dunaway to serve 300 hours of community service and place her on three years’ probation, Andrian said.
Dunaway, a Sonoma State University student, struck and killed Calli Murray and seriously injured her mother, Ling Murray, 42, both of Rohnert Park, in the crosswalk at the intersection of Snyder Lane and Medical Center Drive in Rohnert Park on Dec. 1.
The complaint by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office alleged that the death resulted from Dunaway sending text messages while driving, failing to yield the right-of-way in a crosswalk and driving at an unsafe speed for the conditions.
Andrian said Thursday morning that Rohnert Park police concluded that the tragic accident was not Dunaway’s fault, based on witness statements and the conditions at the intersection.
Rohnert Park police said the driver of another car had stopped in the left-turn lane on Snyder Lane preparing to turn onto Medical Center Drive.
Just before the collision, the driver who had stopped realized Murray and her daughter would not be able to make it across the street without being hit by Dunaway’s car, and she made eye contact with Ling Murray and said, “Don’t,” Andrian said.
He said defense’s case was strong and that the prosecution would have had to prove that texting was the proximate cause of the accident.
Dunaway, however, “never wanted to go to trial even though she had an excellent chance of winning this case,” so she pleaded no contest, Andrian said.
He said a trial would have involved placing the blame on Ling Murray.
“Kaitlyn didn’t want to go there,” Andrian said. “I support her decision.”
Deputy District Attorney Craig Brooks disagreed with the contention Dunaway was not at fault. The district attorney’s office hired an accident reconstruction expert in the case.
“I think our case is strong,” Brooks said. “Our expert disagreed with them 100 percent.”
Dunaway’s community service will include speaking to high school students about the dangers of distracted driving.
Murray’s husband, Jeff Murray, asked the judge to impose some county jail time when Dunaway is sentenced on Nov. 16.
“If she’s going to educate somebody, she should have all the education behind her to speak,” he said.
“She might as well get the best education possible and that includes jail time,” Murray said after the plea hearing. “Jail time would carry more weight with the kids,” Murray said.
“I’m not trying to be vindictive. It’s not ‘cause I’m angry. If part of the problem is to educate people about distracted driving, let’s get her all the education she needs,” Murray said.
Murray would not comment on the assertion that Dunaway was not at fault.
“That’s a whole different story,” he said.
“I haven’t read the police reports and I have no intention of reading them,” Murray said.
Ling Murray is still undergoing physical therapy, her mother-in-law Kay Carrero said.
Brooks said Judge DeMeo can still impose jail time if he decides his indicated sentence is not in the interest of justice.
In that event, Dunaway would be given an opportunity to withdraw her no-contest plea and go to trial, Brooks said.
Brooks said he will review the county probation department’s report and speak to the Murray family before deciding whether he will ask the judge to impose jail time.
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