Jury finds Rifle man guilty of drunken driving, resulting in the deaths of two of his friends
A Garfield County jury on Monday found Cody Christopher guilty of all charges, including two counts of vehicular homicide, for a December 2017 rollover crash north of Rifle that killed two adult men and seriously injured a 10-year-old boy.
The jury delivered its verdict after more than four hours of deliberation, just before 9 p.m., concluding five days of trial plus one day of jury selection.
An emotional Christopher, 41, exited the courthouse in Glenwood Springs surrounded by family and friends, thanking them for coming. Between 20 and 30 of Christopher’s friends attended the trial each day.
“It’s a real tragedy,” said defense attorney Lawson Wills in closing arguments before the jury deliberated. Christopher “lost two of his very best friends, but ladies and gentlemen, don’t make more of a tragedy of this.”
Prosecutors said that Christopher, 41, drank to intoxication and then drove his two friends, Matthew Smith, 36, and Trent Johnson, 41, as well as Johnson’s then-10-year-old son, up the dirt Puma Paw Road several miles north of Rifle on Dec. 28, 2017.
The Ford Excursion rolled off the road and into a creek bed, killing Johnson and Smith, and injuring the boy. Christopher also was injured in the crash.
WHO TO BELIEVE
Neither the prosecution’s evidence from witnesses nor the defense’s theory of the events were completely consistent.
To find him guilty, the jury had to find that Christopher drank to excess — apparently reaching a blood alcohol level of .237, three times the legal limit to drive — then got behind the wheel and drove about half a mile from the ranch buildings before driving off the cliff.
The strongest evidence of Christopher’s guilt may have come from Christopher himself. He told investigators in the early morning hours, while he was in treatment for head injuries and, according to his mother, not making any sense, that he was driving.
Wills presented the theory that Christopher was not driving. In his testimony Friday, Christopher said he was not certain whether he was driving at the time of the crash, but did remember switching seats with some in the car just before the crash.
Prosecutors said that story was too convenient.
“It is only months later that the defendant tells you he wasn’t driving, and if he was, he wasn’t drunk,” 9th District prosecutor Sarah Nordgaard said in closing arguments.
Wills focused on the inconsistencies and missteps in the prosecution’s case, including chain of custody issues related to blood drawn from Christopher, selective testing of DNA evidence from the crash, and improper interview tactics.
On Friday alone, two first responders testified during the prosecution’s rebuttal that they were the first to arrive on the scene, and that the other showed up later.
“These guys can’t even agree on who showed up first,” Wills said.
The prosecution’s case, Wills said, really rested on the testimony of Colorado State Patrol Sgt. David Everidge and CSP Trooper Kirk Bartunek, who spoke to Christopher while he was disoriented and in treatment at Grand River Hospital and later at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
Wills also presented Christopher as courageous for dealing with the situation, while prosecutor Nordgaard framed the question before the jurors as “the hard evidence the people presented to you, or the defendant’s excuses.”
“The defendant doesn’t get a pass just because he killed two of his friends,” Nordgaard said. “The defendant doesn’t get a pass just because he helped a child, who just saw his dead father, get back to help.”
In addition to the two counts of vehicular homicide for the deaths of Johnson and Smith, Christopher was found guilty of vehicular assault for the injuries to the 10-year-old, child abuse, driving under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving.
Sentencing in the case was scheduled for Aug. 8 at 1:30 p.m.
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A Rifle man was sentenced to 15 years in prison Friday morning in two cases, one for vehicular homicide and another for burglary, both while under the influence of alcohol.