A district court gave faulty jury instructions in the 2018 trial of a man who killed a child while driving drunk on a snowmobile, but the error doesn't merit a new trial, the state Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
Snowmobiler Eric J. Coleman was sentenced to 12½ years in prison on a third-degree murder conviction in the death of 8-year-old Alan Geisenkoetter. The case led to the passage of "Little Alan's Law," a change in state law that stiffened penalties for drunken driving.
Coleman was convicted of driving his snowmobile at nearly 60 mph into the Geisenkoetter family as they set up their ice-fishing tent on Chisago Lake on Jan. 26, 2018. Coleman had a blood-alcohol content of 0.165 three hours after the incident, according to court records.
Alan died five days later after being removed from life support. His father was also struck by the snowmobile but survived.
The jury in Coleman's trial was told by Chisago County District Court Judge Suzanne Bollman that they could convict him of third-degree murder if they found he had acted recklessly and that he may have known that his actions could kill somebody.
That was wrong, the three-judge appellate panel said; the court should have told the jury that to convict Coleman it needed to find that he knew for a fact his actions could kill someone.
However, that error didn't require reversal of Coleman's third-degree murder conviction, the appeals court added.
The appeals court also found that the district court erred when it imposed two convictions on Coleman for his two criminal vehicular homicide counts, and two convictions for each of his driving while impaired counts. The court should have imposed just one conviction for each pair of charges since they were based on the same behavioral incident, Appeals Court Judge Jeanne Cochran wrote on behalf of herself and judges Kevin Ross and Susan Segal.
Alan's death created a movement to close a loophole in state law that allowed a person convicted of drunken driving in a car or truck to continue to legally drive a snowmobile, ATV or motorboat. "Little Alan's Law" went into effect in 2018.