Pitkin County judge dismisses criminal charges in traffic-death case
An elderly man who struck and killed a motorcyclist while driving on the wrong side of Highway 82 won’t be charged with any crimes, a judge ruled Tuesday.
John Walls, who was 89 at the time of the Aug. 23 accident that claimed the life of 53-year-old Basalt resident Patrick Dunn, had faced charges of careless driving causing death and reckless endangerment, both misdemeanors, and a traffic-lane violation
Pitkin County Judge Erin-Fernandez Ely threw out the case after hearing that Walls is under a Garfield County court order not to drive.
Previously, both the Public Defender’s Office and the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office had filed motions to dismiss the case based on court-ordered evaluations that determined Walls to be incompetent to understand the case. Walls, a former architect who lives in Carbondale, suffers from dementia and has limited hearing. At Tuesday’s session, he wore a court-issued hearing aid, but it did little good.
“I can hear, but I don’t understand her,” he told his public defender, Jose Gonzalez. At one point, Gonzalez turned up Walls’ aid, but the high volume level made him scream in pain.
“Part of the reason there’s a competency issue is because of his hearing,” Gonzalez said.
The judge proceeded with the hearing despite Walls’ impairment. Fernandez-Ely previously had been on board to dismiss the case but wanted to be assured that the community and the defendant were safe before she made it official, given Walls’ health condition that includes dementia.
An April 30 order, issued by Garfield County District Judge Denise Lynch, propelled Fernandez-Ely to dismiss the case.
In addition to the no-driving provision, Lynch’s order also appointed Walls’ stepson as his guardian and conservator. The stepson also will be required to submit a guardian report on an annual basis.
“The report updates the court about Walls’ living condition, his health, his situation,” said Sue O’Bryan, an attorney for Alpine Legal Services, which was involved with Walls’ case.
Fernandez-Ely said there were “limited options” for the court in the case because “this defendant is not likely to be restored to competency due to his advanced age.”
The fatal crash happened in Pitkin County near mile marker 22 on Highway 82. Walls was driving a 2003 Ford Focus eastbound in the westbound lane; Dunn was driving a 2002 Ducati motorcycle.
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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.