Defendant in car-death case hospitalized during Pitkin County Court hearing
The wait will continue for a Midwestern family grieving the loss of a loved one claimed in a head-on car crash last year, after the defendant faced with sentencing had a nervous breakdown in court and was hospitalized Friday.
The emotional outburst by Basalt resident Christine Tinner, 47, prompted Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely to delay making a decision on the sentence. But she allowed testimony to continue from the relatives of Meleyna Kistner. Kistner was killed Aug. 23 when the vehicle Tinner was driving crossed the centerline on Highway 133, slamming head-on into a vehicle the 21-year-old college student was driving while her boyfriend was asleep in the front passenger’s seat. Tinner’s mother, brother and aunt also spoke, seeking forgiveness and speaking admiringly of the defendant who they said was overwhelmed physically, financially and emotionally by the incident.
“I am not going to finalize a sentence without the defendant present,” the judge said. “And I know that everybody wants to hear her ask for forgiveness, which I was anticipating.”
It was the second straight day of tense, emotional testimony from relatives on both sides of the courtroom, punctuated by Tinner being escorted out of the courtroom as she lost control of her emotions, the defense attorney suggesting an unsafe car could have factored into the death and the judge concluding the hearing with a moment of silence.
The two-day hearing came after Tinner pleaded guilty Feb. 3 to careless driving-causing death and careless driving-causing injury, both misdemeanors. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped three other charges, leaving Kistner’s family angry that she wasn’t charged with a more severe felony count, such as vehicular homicide.
Tinner faces a maximum jail sentence of one year, probation and community service.
The judge set a status conference Tuesday.
Tinner’s breakdown came during testimony from stepmother Heather Eddy Kistner, who accused her of “willful and wanton” behavior the fateful night she got behind the wheel. The previous day, Kistner called Tinner an “evil woman,” and Friday she divulged Tinner’s history of divorce, restraining orders and speeding tickets to the court.
“This is ridiculous,” Tinner said at one point.
Kistner offered blistering remarks about the written character references on behalf of Tinner, claiming “an image of character that does not exist” was being projected by the defense.
Tinner started to sob loudly and was taken out of the courtroom as her family members wept. The judge called for recess, as many remained in the courtroom and could hear Tinner saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Paramedics arrived soon after, carrying her down the courthouse stair in a wheelchair. Tinner covered her face and sobbed throughout, while Kistner family members privately said the anguish they felt was much greater than Tinner’s.
Some of Kistner’s family members also had to be separated and met in another courtroom during recess to sort out their differences.
Defense attorney upsets family
Also stirring the wave of emotions was a statement from Tinner’s attorney Dan Shipp, who, while flashing a copy of Consumer Reports in the direction of the surviving relatives, suggested that the 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier that Kistner was driving — it belonged to her boyfriend Daniel Thul — was too unsafe for the roads. Shipp said he expected to upset family members with his remarks, but that wasn’t his point, he said. Rather, he wanted to bring attention to the car’s safety deficiencies.
It didn’t matter. Kistner’s mother, Ruth Cofre-Carlson, exited the courtroom as Shipp tried to make his case.
“I’m not going to listen to this,” she said.
Stepfather Ron Carlson left soon after, saying, “That was bush league” as he glared at Shipp. After the hearing, Thul’s mother and father angrily confronted Shipp, who said they had misunderstood his point.
Kistner’s father, Remo, like relatives before him, said his daughter and Thul were careful drivers who obeyed the rules of the road and didn’t drink alcohol or use substances before they got behind the wheel.
“(Kistner) did everything right that night, and I won’t even dignify the remark that the car caused the crash because it was more susceptible to deaths,” he said.
In a statement to the court, Shipp that Tinner was overcome with guilt and grief about the accident, but she couldn’t apologize to the family after the accident because her insurance carrier forbid her to. Tinner broke her leg from the crash. Shipp read a letter that Tinner had written to the family after the accident.
“I am so deeply sorry for the loss of your beloved Meleyna. I hope you find the resources you need to heal. I will keep you all in my prayers. Peace and God bless,” she wrote.
“I wish she could have sent that when she requested the opportunity,” Shipp said. “Her insurance did not allow that to happen.”
Shipp also said some of Kistner’s relatives’ theories that Tinner was drinking the night of the accident weren’t valid because hospital lab tests said she tested negative for alcohol.
Mixed emotions from both sides
During court recesses and after the hearing, relatives of both Tinner and Kistner engaged in conversations, many of them respectful and cordial.
Even so, tensions ran deep for much of the day.
Daniel Drahnak, one of Tinner’s two brothers, spoke about the hearing’s impact on him.
“I’ve been just deeply moved by a lot of things the past few days. The remarkable, incredible compassion by Meleyna’s cousins (who spoke Thursday), Daniel’s mother offering a prayer of support for my sister and family and Daniel (Thul) himself coming up to us after the hearing (Thursday) and providing the most amazing display and understanding when he provided encouragement, support and love and told us that, ‘I know this is an accident.’ And the fact that these two displays were from the youngest people in the courtroom, gave me some kind of hope.”
Tinner’s mother Linda Drahnak, also of Michigan, gave an overview of her daughter’s life, saying she lived a life of public service as a social worker and teacher, among other fields.
She asked Kistner’s family to put themselves in her position.
“What if that was my daughter, how would I feel? I just ask that they put themselves in my shoes and realize Christine will be carrying this with her for the rest of her life.”
Kistner’s parents said they weren’t out for vengeance but were bewildered by the case investigation, the plea deal that didn’t include a felony charge and the fact that Kistner and Thul were tested for drugs and alcohol by the State Patrol but Tinner wasn’t. They said they want accountability and something to bring value to Kistner’s life.
“I do not hold any ill feelings toward Ms. Tinner,” Cofre-Carlson said. “I really don’t. I can’t live my life with anger and sadness and animosity. I’m not going to live my life that way. I know where my daughter is. She’s in heaven. And she’s my angel. Ms. Tinner is going to have to address her choices and the value of those choices.
“We would like to know the truth. I need to know the truth. What was Ms. Tinner doing? What was more important than looking at the road ahead of her? What was more important than that? A split second changed so many people’s lives, and that’s a choice she made.”
Judge moved by case
Fernandez-Ely hasn’t hid her feelings about the case. She cried at Friday’s hearing, as she has done at previous ones.
“I went to bed last night and thought (Meleyna) is going to come to me,” the judge said. “She’s going to tell me what to do.”
The judge wept but regained her composure. She talked about the separation of church and state, and said that religion can’t be employed in a court hearing. But it also was unavoidable in this case.
“I’ve said the end of this for you is forgiveness, so you can live, so I can live, and that is a religious concept, so we’re not going to encourage those kind of discussions heretofore in the system,” she said. “A lot of judges would never do this, they would never have this much input. They would have just said, ‘A year’s jail. We’re done, that’s it. Maximum sentence.’”
The judge said the deceased young woman, who attended Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, would influence her decision.
“Meleyna is going to tell me what to do. She’s going to talk to me.”
As hearing drew to a close, the judge asked for a moment of silence. Relatives and friends closed their eyes, bowing their heads. A minute later, the judge said, “Do you hear the wind? I just heard the wind. I did.”
And court was adjourned.
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Officer Haley Walker sat beside her stepmother in a windowless interrogation room just before starting the overnight shift on Thursday evening.