• Jurors struggled with what they saw as a lack of evidence and a victim who had been drunk herself
by Jim Boyle
The jury in the trial against Carlos Molina Flores, 43, nearly found the Nowthen man guilty of killing Suzanah Van De Walker, 27, of St. Francis, in a Feb. 24, 2013, crash along Twin Lakes Road.
That same jury also nearly found him not guilty before deadlocking in the jury room and having Judge Thomas Hayes declare a mistrial in November 2013.
Flores pleaded guilty Dec. 16 to one of two felony counts that were lodged against him in Sherburne County 10th District Court in Elk River. Hayes placed him on 10 years of probation with his prison sentence and most of his $20,000 fine stayed, provided he upholds the terms of his plea agreement. He was also given credit for his 173 days spent in the Sherburne County Jail.
The jury, which started its deliberations with most jurors thinking he was guilty, told the Star News that they swung the other way but couldn’t get past a 10-2 vote in favor of Flores’ innocence. Jurors concluded there wasn’t enough to convict Flores.
“There just wasn’t enough evidence,” said Mark Lindenfelser, one of the last jurors to change his vote to not guilty. “There was considerable doubt.
“It was a tough trial. When you go into it, you think it’s going to be cut and dried one way and then it turns.”
The fact that Van De Walker had been drunk at the time of the crash raised a red flag for most jurors. An autopsy found her blood alcohol level to be about 0.24 to 0.26, according to court documents.
Jurors also struggled with a lack of witnesses. The only one was Flores.
Flores plead guilty to one count of criminal vehicular operation, the one that called attention to his alcohol concentration of more than 0.08 within two hours of driving. It had been discovered to be 0.17.
The majority of the jury members said the police should have looked more into what Van De Walker’s vehicle had done prior to the crash.
“It seemed like he was deemed guilty from the get-go,” said Steve Gracik, another one of the 12 jurors. “There wasn’t an accident reconstruction from the direction she came — only from his way.”
Other jurors agreed.
Juror Joyce Eckberg said authorities never took pictures coming from her direction and they never knew she was drunk until an autopsy was done.
“It didn’t seem fair to me,” Eckberg said. “It seemed like the police thought he was guilty from the moment they stepped on the scene.
“He was, except she was guilty, too. It wasn’t totally his fault.”
Karl Mortenson was one of the two jurors who held onto their belief that Flores was guilty.
“I don’t know why people were so reluctant to find him guilty,” he said. “I think it was because they felt almost sorry for him.
“I didn’t feel this way, but a lot of people felt that the victim was partly at fault because she was more intoxicated than he was.”
Accident reconstructionist Mike Sieg of the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office determined that Flores’ pickup had been traveling southbound 43 mph and the St. Francis woman had been traveling 42 mph northbound when Flores’ truck crossed the center line of the road and collided with the Grand Prix Van De Walker was driving.
Mortensen felt this testimony was telling.
“You either believed and understood the testimony of the reconstructionist or didn’t,” Mortensen said. “(Flores) crossed the center line and hit the other car. If you didn’t understand that, there wasn’t much to really prove that the defendant was guilty.”
Flores admitted guilt in his plea agreement. But his testimony suggested Van De Walker was driving erratically.
He maintained in the trial and at his final hearing that her vehicle had been off to the side of the road when he first saw it, and he said he thought the car was a police squad.
He said in court he looked down at his speedometer because of this and when he looked back up, the car was upon him.
Samuel Wertheimer, the chief deputy county attorney, fought against the idea that Van De Walker was somehow negligent in the crash, according to court documents.
Wertheimer argued during the case even if the victim failed to wear a seat belt or was negligent in some other way, she did not transform the sequence of events.
He said the accident reconstruction determined that the defendant crossed the center line while traveling southbound and the area of impact of the vehicles occurred in the northbound lane of traffic, according to court documents.
“Hence there is no evidence that the victim’s consumption of alcohol and driving conduct was a superceding cause of the crash,” Wertheimer stated.
Jurors were not so sure.
“It was clear to at least all but two of us that there was a real possibility that she could have dictated where he ended up on the road,” Gracik said. “That’s where we have doubt. We doubt she came around that corner perfect.
“I don’t think I could drive at a (0.24 BAC), so it was certainly hard to say he was 100 percent at fault.”
Michael Berger, Flores’ public defender, raised concerns over the fact that Van De Walker had been drinking prior to the crash and that she wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
Mortensen said he felt it was reasonable to believe that she could make the curve fine, having driven it many times before.
“Sure, she had been drinking,” Mortensen said. “But … she died. I thought there was enough evidence to say he was responsible.”
An emotional Flores pleaded guilty Dec. 16 to felony criminal vehicular homicide with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more within two hours of driving on what would have been the start of that second trial. The prosecution and defense reached the agreement with the defendant, knowing each side had considerable risk, Hayes noted in court.
Another jury might find him guilty and he would be sent to prison immediately, or another jury could find him not guilty and there would be no consequences handed down by the court. A third possibility was another hung jury.
Jurors, including Mortenson, said the final outcome was satisfactory.
“I don’t think there was enough to absolve him from being found guilty,” Mortenson said.
Mary Fjerstad, another one of the jurors, said she felt bad for both families.
“Nothing is going to bring her back,” she said. “It’s a huge tragedy. But for him to serve up to 20 years would have been another tragedy.
“This is perhaps the best outcome. It’s hanging over his head. It was clear after seeing him that he didn’t take anything lightly.”