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'Eerily similar'

Juneau man who pleaded guilty in 2009 to criminally negligent homicide after drunken driving crash takes life is back in court for alleged probation violation that involves drinking and driving

Posted: June 22, 2012 - 12:05am
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Thomas T. Emerson, 21, sits in Juneau Superior Court Thursday during his arraignment for allegedly violating his conditions of probation. Emerson was sentenced for criminally negligent homicide in connection to the 2009 drunk driving accident that killed Taylor Bristol White. Emerson was arrested early Thursday morning when he was found driving with a blood alcohol content of .049% with two passengers in the car on North Douglas Highway.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Thomas T. Emerson, 21, sits in Juneau Superior Court Thursday during his arraignment for allegedly violating his conditions of probation. Emerson was sentenced for criminally negligent homicide in connection to the 2009 drunk driving accident that killed Taylor Bristol White. Emerson was arrested early Thursday morning when he was found driving with a blood alcohol content of .049% with two passengers in the car on North Douglas Highway.

A Juneau man who was involved in a deadly drunken driving accident in 2009 is back in court again for an alleged probation violation that court records state involved drinking and driving.

Prosecutors say 21-year-old Thomas Tyler Emerson was pulled over by police at 3 a.m. Thursday morning when he was clocked driving 72 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone on North Douglas Highway. Two passengers were in the car.

Emerson provided a breath sample on scene, and his blood alcohol content (BAC) level was found to be 0.049 percent, which is less than the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent, according to charging documents.

But prosecutors said even though Emerson wasn’t legally drunk, he violated his conditions of probation that a judge imposed in the 2009 case. Those conditions prohibit him from consuming or possessing alcohol.

Emerson admitted to drinking three beers from 10:30 p.m. Wednesday to 12:30 a.m. Thursday before getting behind the wheel, according to an affidavit filed by a probation officer.

Police also searched his vehicle and found a flask and a bottle of Camarena Tequila, which was one-third full, the affidavit states.

Emerson was taken into custody and remanded back into prison, and he appeared in Juneau Superior Court for an arraignment later that afternoon.

The probation officer who penned the affidavit, Sara Dallas, expressed disbelief and shock Emerson would drink and drive again after the 2009 crash, which resulted in Taylor Bristol White’s death.

“It is notable the circumstances of the probation violation and the circumstances of the underlying offense are eerily similar,” Dallas wrote. “Although not over the legal limit to drive a vehicle, it is shocking the defendant would drive after consuming any amount of alcohol.”

Around 2 a.m. on June 5, 2009, Emerson was driving with a BrAC of 0.141 percent near Mile 37 of Glacier Highway with two passengers in the car.

The teenagers were partying out the road after graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School just two days before on June 2.

Emerson lost control the vehicle going about 80 miles per hour around a slight bend in the road. The vehicle careened off the roadway and into the trees, ejecting himself and White, who was sitting in the back seat.

Emerson survived, as did the third passenger, Kelly Childers, then 17, who was the only one wearing her seat belt.

White was pronounced dead on the scene. He was 18.

Emerson was charged with criminally negligent homicide, a felony, and he pleaded guilty to that charge in December 2009.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg sentenced Emerson in August of 2010 to six years in prison with five suspended, which meant he had to serve one year in prison. The judge also required Emerson be placed on supervised probation for five years after his release.

The sentence was weighted heavily with suspended time and probation as Emerson was remorseful and was a young offender.

“If a minimum sentence didn’t apply in this case, then I don’t know if there will ever be a case that does,” Pallenberg said at the time.

Emerson ended up spending only one day actually in prison, since he was allowed to serve his sentence in a halfway house. He also did a stint on electronic monitoring. He was released from custody on May 5, 2011, and began his five-year probation sentence that day.

The Empire previously reported Emerson and White were close childhood friends. After the accident, the two families remained close in shared grief.

“I can’t say sorry enough for what I’ve done ... I can’t bring Taylor back. This is forever,” Emerson is quoted as saying on a plaque commemorating White’s death.

The victim’s mother, Carol White, said she never harbored any resentment toward Emerson, and she went on to testify on Emerson’s behalf during his sentencing hearing.

“We’ve already lost one kid, we don’t need to lose anyone more,” she told the Empire in an interview in January 2010. “And if you start blaming and doing that kind of thing when you have a tragedy like this, it seems like everybody loses.”

Carol and her husband Kevin established a foundation to combat underage drinking and driving following their son’s death. The foundation helped White’s story become a well-known local cautionary tale by creating a documentary about the events leading up to his death, which is still shown to high school students, and by displaying the wrecked car as a mobile art piece around town.

Carol again stood by Emerson’s side on Thursday, and attended his court arraignment. She declined to say much, but did say she was there to support him.

“I’m just here to support him,” she said as she made her way out of the courthouse. “He made another mistake.”

The prosecution and the probation officer weren’t so forgiving and requested the court hold a hearing to determine if Emerson violated the terms of his probation as alleged.

District Attorney David Brower told the judge he agreed with Dallas the two instances were “eerily similar,” and he requested bail be set at $20,000.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez, who was filling in for Pallenberg as he is still assigned to the case, said Emerson may pose a danger to the public if he gets behind the wheel of a car.

“Less than two years ago, you were convicted of a crime, and today you’re alleged to have violated the law in circumstances that are remarkably similar to the basis in which you were convicted in the earlier crime,” Menendez said.

Menendez set bail in the amount of $10,000 cash appearance bond and a $10,000 performance bond. The judge also required that Emerson be in the custody of a third-party custodian and that he not be allowed to drive, if he is released before the hearing.

Menendez explained to Emerson if the hearing determines he violated probation, the court has several options, including imposing some or all of the five-year suspended jail sentence and extending the probation time.

The judge scheduled Emerson to next appear in court before Pallenberg on Monday.

Emerson was dressed in a yellow Lemon Creek Correctional Center jumpsuit and shackled next to three other inmates. He appeared emotionally distressed throughout the hearing, and he occasionally wiped tears away from his eyes.

He answered routine questions and told the judge he intends on hiring an attorney to represent him.

Efforts to reach Emerson’s family were unsuccessful before press time.

The probation officer noted in her report Emerson was doing well on probation until this moment. She said he was enrolled in college and worked at a downtown shop.

Still, Dallas wrote, “It is clear the defendant has not learned from his actions and continues to engage in the type of behavior that resulted in the loss of a young man’s life.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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