A judge on Thursday approved a third-party custodian and a release plan for a 21-year-old man who was allegedly drinking and driving while on probation in a fatal 2009 drunken driving crash case.
In order to be released from prison, Juneau Superior Court Judge Phillip Pallenberg ordered that Thomas Tyler Emerson post $2,500 bond and to be under 24-hour sight and sound supervision of his father, Joseph Richie Emerson.
Emerson is awaiting an adjudication hearing on Sept. 26 that will determine if he violated his conditions of release by possessing and consuming alcohol.
“The circumstances that are alleged here, I think are very serious,” Pallenberg said. “It goes without saying that the offense for which Mr. Emerson is on probation is extraordinarily serious. Nothing more serious than a case that involves a death.”
Prosecutors say Emerson was pulled over by police last Thursday for speeding on North Douglas Highway with two passengers in the car, allegedly with alcohol in his system and a bottle of alcohol and a flask in the vehicle. An affidavit stated his blood alcohol content level was 0.049 percent, which is less than the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent.
In June 2009, Emerson, then 18, was driving drunk with two passengers in his car a few days after high school graduation and lost control of the car near Mile 37 of Glacier Highway. Taylor Bristol White, 18, a childhood friend, was ejected from the car and died on the scene.
Emerson pleaded guilty to negligent criminal homicide and was sentenced by Pallenberg in August of 2010 to six years in prison with five suspended. That’s one year to serve in prison, which Emerson fulfilled in a halfway house and with a stint on electronic monitoring. He was released from custody May 5, 2011, and given a five-year probation period, during which he was prohibited from possessing or consuming alcohol.
Pallenberg remarked that the memory of that emotional sentencing hearing in August 2010 still lingers.
“The sentencing hearing in this case — across the way, in the courtroom across the hall almost two years ago — is vividly etched as one of the most powerful and emotional days I’ve spent in the courtroom as a judge,” Pallenberg said. “So there’s a lot to think about here.”
But, Pallenberg said, Thursday’s bail review hearing was not a sentencing hearing, and there were different statutory factors to consider. The judge said he didn’t consider Emerson to be a flight risk, nor does Emerson pose a danger to the public so long as he doesn’t drink and drive. He accepted a release plan put forth by Emerson’s attorney, Jeffrey Sauer.
The plan allows Emerson to be a deckhand for his father, a veteran commercial fisherman, aboard his father’s fishing vessel. The two plan on heading to the fishing grounds in the Cross Sound area, some 70 miles away from Juneau, for the duration of the season, which begins July 1 and ends Sept. 20.
The elder Emerson testified before the judge that his son has been on several fishing trips with him, including a halibut trip in May, and that his son has never had any trouble on the boat before.
The judge prohibited alcohol on the fishing boat, and prohibited them from leaving Southeast Alaska waters. He also ordered Emerson not to possess or consume alcohol, or to drive a vehicle. If Emerson violates any of these conditions, his father is required to report them. If he doesn’t, he could face charges himself.
“I think it’s fair to say that a few nights ago, if the allegations of the petition are true, that safety of other persons in the community was in jeopardy,” Pallenberg said. “The question for me, though, is under this release plan, would the safety of other persons in the community be in jeopardy? It won’t (in part because) Mr. Emerson is out fishing with his father.”
When they return from the trip, Emerson has 24 hours to return to the jail so he can be remanded back into custody before the Sept. 26 hearing, the judge said.
Shackled and wearing yellow prison garb, Emerson was not asked to and did not speak during the hearing. But family and friends showed up to support him in the courtroom. Among those were retired Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins, who said she was a longtime friend of both the Emerson and White families.
Taylor White’s mother, Carol White, was also in attendance, to lend Emerson moral support. After the crash, the families came together in shared grief, and she even testified on Emerson’s behalf during his sentencing hearing nearly two years ago.
White told reporters after Thursday’s hearing that Emerson has never shirked away from accepting responsibility for his role in the deadly 2009 crash, and has always shown remorse.
When White and her husband, Kevin, established a foundation to combat underage drinking and driving and then produced a film to document the events of the night of their son’s death, Emerson was the only one who originally showed up to do it, she said. Once he did, the other kids followed. The film is still shown to high school students across Southeast Alaska. White said it wasn’t an easy thing for Emerson to do.
“He’s a pretty reticent person and not a very — I mean, he’s a very private person — and so if you watch him prepare to do that, you understand the effort that it requires. He shakes, he gets so he can’t talk very well, and it takes him a little time to get used to it,” she said.
“So he’s really doing it at a personal cost,” she added. “It’s not easy for him to do, and he is always done anything we’ve asked, whether it’s to present to 500 people or to stuff envelopes. And that takes strength of character, that takes courage, and that is part of him as well. ... We focus right now on how he’s messed up, and that’s part of him, too. And while he’s certainly not a perfect person, he’s a very good person.”
White continued to say that she wasn’t aware that Emerson was having so much trouble recently and that he is probably still struggling to forgive himself.
“Self-forgiveness is a tough thing for any of us, and I think being 18 makes it harder, and I think being a male makes it even harder,” she said. “So I guess if I had to see the grace in any of this, it is that now I understand where he is whereas I didn’t realize how hard he was struggling and the fact that this forgiveness hadn’t quite been processed.”
When Emerson was remanded back to jail last week on suspicion of violating probation, his first and only phone call was to her, she said.
“He called me, he said, ‘Carol, I have to tell you something really awful. I screwed up. I have screwed up what we’ve been working for for the past three years,’” White said. “He called me from jail. He didn’t want me to hear that any other way.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.