Mar 6, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff WriterThe morning Gavin Shurtleff, of Riverton, crashed into the back of a PT Cruiser stopped at a construction zone by Boysen Reservoir in August, killing its two occupants, he neglected to wash sap off his windshield.
"I'm saying this not as excuse. I'm saying it as I messed up," Shurtleff, 31, said during his sentencing in Riverton's Circuit Court on Monday. "I struggle with it every day of my life."
Calling the deviation from his morning routine his first mistake of the day, he pointed to his next critical failure: his reaction to a construction sign.
"I did slow down. I never hit my brakes," Shurtleff said, his deep voice amplified in the courtroom packed with more than 100 onlookers. "I didn't see anything -- and at this point is where my second mistake was made: I sped back up."
With the morning sun glaring in his eyes, eyes that may have been affected by Stargardt's disease that left him 5 percent blind, he shifted his vision.
"When I couldn't see, I averted my focus to the centerline of the highway and maintained the speed limit," he said. "Why I didn't slow down haunts me to this day."
Seconds later, his 2009 Dodge 5500 Encana Corp. work truck, cruising at 67 mph, smashed into the back of the car occupied by Deaun L. Smith, 54, and Anthony C. Smith, 53, both of Riverton. The married couple died during the crash, which happened at 7:20 a.m. Aug. 25.
For causing their deaths, Shurtleff received a sentence of two years of home detention and $4,000 in fines on two counts of misdemeanor homicide by vehicle. He has a sentence review hearing in September that could result in removing him from home detention and placing him on probation for the term's remainder.
Circuit Judge Wesley A. Roberts announced Shurtleff's sentencing near the end of a 45-minute explanation to the court's audience, which came at the end of a hearing that spanned eight hours.
Before announcing the sentence, Roberts said it is "not the appropriate response in my mind to inflict retaliatory pain" as a punishment for or consequence of Shurtleff's crimes.
"When I sentence Mr. Shurtleff today, I can't do anything that will take away any of the anger that you feel," Roberts said to several members of the victims' family who were gathered in the court. "I cannot punish away your anger when I deal with a perpetrator."
Roberts noted the case isn't one that involves "intentional violence against another human being," but the judge said Shurtleff "operated on an assumption which no driver should ever do" and his actions amounted to criminal negligence.
To Shurtleff, Roberts said, "In all honesty, having sat up here for seven years, I have never see anyone express remorse the way you did, and I want to commend you for that."
The sentencing marked the latest landmark in the ongoing turmoil experienced by the family and friends of the Smiths and Shurtleff. He pleaded no contest Jan. 25 under an agreement that dismissed two felony counts of aggravated vehicular homicide each with maximum sentences of 20 years in prison.
Supporters on both sides of the case flocked to court where at times upward of 40 people stood in the room or hallway to watch or listen to the hearing. All seats in the courtroom were occupied.
Deputy county attorney Kathy Kavanagh asked for the maximum two-year jail sentence for Shurtleff. The prosecution decreased emphasis on Shurtleff's eye disorder diagnosis as a significant contributing factor.
"Did Mr. Shurtleff's eyes play a role in this case? Probably," Kavanagh said, adding "not to the level the state expected when we first looked at the case."
Shurtleff had been cleared by the state to drive months before the crash and medical professionals determined his vision deterioration had halted, according to testimony in court.
Kavanagh called the case one "that as a prosecutor haunts you. ... He is in many ways an exceptional young man."
"Good people do make bad choices, Judge, and that's what happened here," she said.
Kavanagh said Shurtleff was suffering because of the assumption there was no construction on Highway 789. "I just don't understand how someone can keep their foot on the accelerator when they're driving blind," Kavanagh said.
Family members of the Smiths expressed their feelings to the court during the hearing.
"God bless the family that has to deal with that, because it was obvious just by the condition of the car nobody made it," Deaun's son Travis testified about his thoughts when passing the wreckage. "Little did I know that was my family."
He recommended the maximum sentence because "like anything, you got to pay for what you did."
Deaun's eldest brother, Lee Heermann, testified the couple were heading to Casper for a medical treatment after Anthony Smith had his throat cancer in remission following 39 consecutive days of chemotherapy.
Heermann said he has a recurring vision of his sister looking into the rearview mirror at the last second and seeing the massive truck barreling toward her car.
"What horrifies me is having to meet (Shurtleff) on the highway," he said.
Shurtleff's defense attorney, Michael Messenger, of Thermopolis, had 13 people, including his client, make statements to the court about the case he labeled a "perfect storm" of factors that led to the crash.
Some testified that they saw three or so construction zone signs instead of the seven stated in court records and by the Wyoming Highway Patrol. Others testified about Shurtleff being a good student at Wind River High School, a dedicated Marine after graduation and a committed nearly 10-year employee at Encana before the company terminated him after the crash.
"His eyes passed all of his tests within weeks of the crash," said Kent Shurtleff, Gavin's dad. "If Gavin could not see, Gavin would not drive."
The defendant's girlfriend, Anna Farris, testified his vision causes her no worries.
"In the two years that Gavin and I have been dating, never once did I hesitate driving with him," Farris said. "This was a tragic accident, but it was an accident."
Shurtleff himself said his vision did not play a factor in the crash.
"In my heart of hearts, I don't feel a lot of the things that have been said about me are true," he said.
"What matters to me is on Aug. 25 I killed two innocent people. I took them away from their family, and I cut their life short for poor decisions I made and I'm sorry for that. I'm so sorry," he said.
"I stand before you today to accept whatever punishment you give my like a man, like a man my family raised me to be, in hopes one day I can pick up the pieces of my life and try to put it back together," Shurtleff said.
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