In a ruling Monday, Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin showed some empathy for those who mourn 7-year-old Jacob Austin, who was hit and killed by a sport-utility vehicle as he, his siblings and a friend walked along Labore Road in Little Canada on a cold December night in 2007.
Gearin didn't, however, let it keep her from finding Linda L. Fahey, the driver of the SUV, not guilty of careless driving.
"It is the court's duty not to let the fact that a beautiful young boy died in a car accident ... interfere with its duty to analyze as best it can the evidence in a logical, nonemotional manner," the judge wrote in a memorandum that accompanied her order.
"Minnesota law makes clear that not every tragic accident is the result of negligence or carelessness on the part of any party," Gearin wrote. " ...[I]n the court's judgment, the state has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a crime. The state's burden is not less because the injury is great."
Gearin heard emotional testimony during a one-day trial Nov. 17 from Fahey, 60, and her husband, Mike, as well as police and paramedics who responded to the accident. Prosecutor David Hunt presented no witnesses at the trial, saying the state's evidence was laid out in grand jury testimony. Hunt and the defense attorney, Mark Gehan, submitted their closing arguments in writing.
The Faheys were headed to their home in Little Canada about 10:40 p.m. Dec. 8, 2007, after attending a friend's Christmas party in Richfield. Jacob, along with his brothers Damion Austin, 9; Neal Stewart, 15, and neighborhood friend Michael Baragas, 14, were headed to the Austin/Stewart home less than three blocks away for a sleepover after picking up some video games at Baragas' house.
Fahey said she was driving no more than 30 miles per hour when she heard a thump and her husband, who had been napping in the passenger seat, told her to pull over. Fahey testified that as she and her husband jumped out and found Jacob lying unresponsive in the snow, she heard the youngest of the other boys screaming, "You killed my brother! You killed my brother!"
Jacob died from his injuries two days later. The others escaped serious injury.
Fahey originally was charged with a felony, criminal vehicular homicide, but that was dismissed after the grand jury failed to indict her.
Monday's ruling laid out some of the grand jury testimony: Neal Stewart had said the boys were walking single file on the shoulder of the road when they were hit. But another friend, James Newton, 12, testified that Neal had told him that Neal and Michael Baragas had chased Jacob and Damion up out of the driveway and into the street.
Hunt, the prosecutor, argued that Fahey drove on the shoulder of the road for 40 feet and her tracks could be seen in the snow on the shoulder. He also suggested that Fahey might have fallen asleep at the wheel or been looking the other way when she hit the boys.
That, Gearin wrote, "amounts to mere speculation." She wrote that while the state had proven that "it is more likely than not" that Fahey's car drifted onto the shoulder of the road at some point, "they have not proven this by proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992