A driver involved in a fatal car crash in 2009 was sentenced to serve nine months in prison for violating probation.
A plea deal, which was accepted by a judge on Tuesday, also requires Thomas Tyler Emerson, 21, to serve five more years of probation and requires him to enroll in and complete an 18-month therapeutic court program for DWI (driving while intoxicated) drivers.
The deal additionally mandated that Emerson receive mental health counseling if recommended by his probation officer and that an interlock device be placed on his vehicle for the duration of his probation.
Emerson admitted to the probation violations earlier this year in September. A police officer had pulled him over for speeding on North Douglas Highway in June, and his blood alcohol content level was found to be 0.049 percent.
That’s less than the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent and did not warrant a DWI charge, but it violated his probation which prohibited him from drinking or possessing alcohol.
Prosecutors said the violation was “eerily similar” the underlying 2009 case for which Emerson was on probation.
Then 18, Emerson was driving drunk with passengers in his car and crashed near Mile 37 of Glacier Highway. The crash killed Emerson’s childhood friend, Taylor Bristol White, 18, who was pronounced dead at the scene.
Emerson was charged with felony criminal negligent homicide, and he pleaded guilty as charged. He was sentenced in that case to six years in prison with five years suspended, but avoided jail time by serving his one year in a halfway house and with a stint on electronic monitoring. He was released from custody in May 2011, and placed on probation for five years.
During a disposition hearing in the case in Juneau Superior Court on Tuesday, Emerson apologized for his actions.
“I’d just like to say I’m sorry,” Emerson said, standing before Judge Philip Pallenberg. “I showed another horrible lapse of judgement, put the safety of others in danger, and I’d just like to offer an apology to those affected, this court and the community in general. That being said, I know that given this chance to participate in therapeutic court, I’ll be able to address all these issues that manifested in this violation, be able to move forward, put all of this behind me and just, most importantly, make sure that this never happens again.”
Emerson told the court in a letter that he had turned to alcohol as a temporary relief from his overwhelming sense of survivor’s guilt, and that he succumbed to peer pressure by drinking the night he violated probation.
Emerson’s attorney Jeffrey Sauer said Emerson’s behavior surprised many people, especially since he was doing well on probation at the time. He was enrolled in school and had a job at a shop downtown.
Sauer said his client clearly exercised poor judgement that night in June, but the problem had deep roots. Sauer said a doctor recently conducted a psychological examination on Emerson and did not diagnose a disorder, but that some elements of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were present.
Sauer said the significant jail time should be enough to meet the sentencing criteria of deterrence and community condemnation, and the therapeutic court requirement should help his client with his rehabilitation. The therapeutic court program will also keep Emerson on a “short leash” since he will be supervised on a regular basis, Sauer said.
Pallenberg commended Sauer and District Attorney David Brower for reaching an agreement that the judge described as a good solution.
The judge wished Emerson luck in rehabilitation, but said he was lucky he wasn’t involved in another drunken driving accident.
“The consequences could have been dreadful, that’s why you’re in jail,” Pallenberg said.
Emerson could have been sentenced to up to five years in suspended jail time for violating probation. Emerson had already been remanded back to jail on Sept. 26 to begin serving out his 9-month sentence.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.