The Juneau man charged with second-degree murder for a fatal car crash out the road has pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of criminally negligent homicide.
Ryan W. West, 27, entered into a plea bargain and changed his plea Monday morning in Juneau Superior Court before Judge Louis Menendez.
The attorneys did not agree on what sentence West should serve, and sentencing will be up to the court. Menendez scheduled a three-hour long sentencing hearing to take place April 15.
By pleading guilty, West avoids standing trial before a jury on the more serious second-degree murder charge, which is an unclassified felony punishable by up to 99 years in jail. If convicted, he more likely would have been facing 20 to 30 years in jail, his attorney David Seid said.
In contrast, criminally negligent homicide is a class ‘B’ felony that has a maximum punishment of 10 years in jail. Because West has a prior felony, he is presumptive to serve four to seven years.
Shackled and wearing a yellow prisoner’s jumpsuit, West tried to make eye contact with Gabriel Carte’s family as he was escorted out of the courtroom. Carte is the 19-year-old who was killed in the June 6, 2011, single-vehicle rollover crash, and some of his family members flew down from Cordova and Anchorage to attend the court hearing, Carte’s aunt said.
Carte’s stepfather Ron Horton said they want West to serve no less than seven years in jail, although it’s hard to compare jail time to the loss of their loved one.
“Negligent homicide is the death of another person, and how do we put time on that, you know?” Horton said after the hearing. “In this case, sure, we’re not going to call it an eye for an eye, but we feel like if he doesn’t do at least seven years in jail, he’s not going to learn anything.”
Horton said he disagreed with the state that the plea deal was the way to resolve the case, and the family would have preferred the case to go to trial.
“We’re not big believers in plea bargaining, but the state’s the one that made the decision to go for the plea bargain,” Horton said. “... We would have preferred it to go to trial ... because we feel that the people would make the right decision in this case based on his repeat offense.”
Horton said they interpreted West’s plea on Monday to mean that West was finally forced into accepting responsibility for causing Carte’s death.
“It is our contention that the admission of taking a plea bargain is one of guilt, and he knows he’s guilty,” Horton said.
Prosecutors argued West, who was on probation from an earlier 2009 case, was driving his pickup truck at excessive speeds after drinking alcohol when it rolled over near Mile 32 of Glacier Highway. Carte was declared dead at the scene.
Throughout pretrial proceedings, West maintained he was not driving his truck at the time of the crash. He said he allowed Carte to drive, and that they had switched seats prior to the crash, according to pretrial motions filed by Seid. West did admit to drinking two beers before getting behind the wheel, which was a probation violation, according to the motions.
On Monday, it was unclear if West specifically admitted to driving the truck when it crashed, despite entering a guilty plea. At one point, the judge asked West to admit or deny a probation violation for “knowingly operating a motor vehicle at excessive speeds after consuming alcohol ... resulting in (Carte’s) death.”
West responded, “I’m not going to admit to all those allegations, but I will admit to criminally negligent homicide.”
Seid then intervened and asked the court to make the finding that West violated his probation based on the fact that he’s pleading guilty.
After the car crash, the state filed two petitions to revoke West’s probation from the earlier 2009 case, saying he violated probation.
The plea deal in place now calls for West to serve two years in jail for each of the two violations, with one year to run concurrent. That means the composite sentence would be 36 months. He’ll get credit for time already served.
One of the violations was for drinking the two beers the night of the crash, and the other violation was for failing two drug tests in July of 2011. His urine tested positive for marijuana, and Vicodin and methamphetamine, according to the allegations. The second violation also included the allegation that West violated probation by breaking the law, citing the fact that he was charged with a crime in connection to the car crash.
West was on probation for seriously injuring a 19-year-old woman dragged by his truck in February 2009. According to prosecutors at the time, the woman handed West money to buy oxycontin as he was sitting in the driver’s seat of his truck. Intending to rip her off, West counted the money then sped away without giving her the drugs.
Then-District Attorney Douglas Gardner wrote in an affidavit that the woman held onto the truck as it accelerated out of a parking lot and that West ignored her pleas for help. She fell off after traveling about a block, and she sustained a serious head injury that required her to be medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
West ended up pleading guilty to two charges in connection to the crime, second-degree theft and duty of an operator to give information and render assistance, which is another way of saying failure to render aid after an accident. He received a suspended imposition of sentence (SIS), and was ordered to serve 12 months in jail for each count. He was placed on probation for five years.
After the 2011 car crash, the state also charged West with two misdemeanors for violating his conditions of release, for the same conduct noted above. The plea deal dismisses those charges.
Judge Menendez will decide whether to accept the plea deal during the upcoming sentencing hearing.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.