A 22-year-old woman who caused a crash that killed three people avoided jail time on Tuesday, but will spend the anniversary of the fatal crash at the victims' graves.

The unusual order was imposed by Dakota County Judge Jerome Abrams in Hastings after relatives of the victims suggested it during an emotional sentencing hearing for Brittany Rose Mertz of St. Paul, who was convicted last month of careless driving for causing the death of a woman and two children in 2008.

County Attorney James Backstrom said such a sentence is rare, "but it's been done before."

In Mertz's case, it was suggested by a niece of Brittany Beth Carlson, 30, of Zumbrota, who was killed when Mertz drove her car across the median of Hwy. 52 near 117th Street in Inver Grove Heights on April 17, 2008. The crash also killed Carlson's son Brandon, 2, and another passenger in the Carlson car, Tamaya Phillips, 4, of Minneapolis. Two other children in the car were seriously injured.

Mertz, formerly known as Brittany Krueger, was convicted of one misdemeanor count of careless driving but acquitted of three felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide and other charges.

The acquittal on the more serious charges caused outrage, and relatives of the deceased echoed that Tuesday, telling the judge that Mertz was getting off too easily.

"This is a tragedy," Darrell Carlson, Brittany Carlson's father, told Mertz. "I've lost everything, everything. You should own this."

Grave visits ordered

The judge also ordered Mertz to serve a year's probation and perform 200 hours of community service. He ordered restitution for expenses incurred by the relatives of the victims. That amount is to be determined.

Mertz also must take a safe-driving course and participate in a "restorative conference" with the relatives of the victim if they choose. In such a conference, perpetrators are forced to confront the victims of their crimes or their survivors.

A tearful Mertz addressed the relatives of the survivors first, saying she deeply regretted the crash and the loss of life.

"I would like to say to all who were affected ... I know you are all suffering," Mertz said. "It's so hard to find the right words to apologize for killing innocent people. Please know that I am truly sorry."

The judge could have given her a maximum of 90 days in jail for the careless driving charge, which is what the county attorney's office was seeking at the hearing.

"We believe jail was warranted," Backstrom said. "When a person's negligence claims three lives ... we believe jail time is warranted."

Backstrom said his office didn't request the order to visit the gravesites. But after the judge decided to include it in the sentence, the county attorney's office asked the county's corrections department to monitor Mertz's visit "to make sure she isn't at the gravesite at the same time as the family members," Backstrom said. "We were concerned about insuring that it didn't adversely effect the victims in any way."

Abrams didn't explain why he didn't order Mertz to serve jail time. He said that he was basing his decisions on state laws and that perhaps the law should be changed if people want stiffer penalties in such cases.

"Maybe it's time that we look more closely at that," the judge said to a packed courtroom, which included people supporting Mertz. "Their loss should not be forgotten."

After ordering a tearful Mertz to visit the gravesites, the judge told her: "You can acknowledge to them what has happened."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281