No jail time for woman in fatal crash in Pitkin County
ASPEN — Christine Tinner came to Pitkin County Court on Tuesday with a bouquet of roses, hoping it would be the first step in gaining forgiveness. She intended to give individual flowers to relatives and others associated with the case of Meleyna Kistner, who was killed Aug. 23 when Tinner drove her vehicle across the center line on Highway 133, colliding head-on with the vehicle Kistner was driving as her boyfriend slept.
Tinner’s gesture, however, was met with rejection by Kistner’s stepmother, who, at the sentencing hearing’s end, threw the flowers in Tinner’s direction.
The courtroom incident was emblematic of some of the family members’ grief and suffering, along with their frustration with the criminal justice system and conviction that Tinner lacked accountability for the accident. The younger Kistner was a bright, energetic 21-year-old student at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, with a promising career in mechanical engineering, a life cut short by a driver who, according to authorities, fell asleep at the wheel.
Others had previously forgiven Tinner, including Kistner’s boyfriend Daniel Thul, and her biological mother Ruth Cofre-Carlson, who listened to the hearing by telephone.
But stepmother Heather Kistner, who attended the hearing with her husband Remo Kistner, Meleyna’s father, said Tinner continued to downplay her deadly role in the collision.
“She’s irrelevant in our life going forward,” Heather Kistner said after the hearing.
Tinner said she “wished peace and healing for everyone involved.”
The judge’s sentence
Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely, who publicly grappled with finding a resolution to the case at previous hearings, didn’t sentence Tinner to jail time. Tinner, who pleaded guilty Feb. 3 to misdemeanor counts of careless driving-causing death and careless driving-causing injury, faced up to one year behind bars.
“I’m not going to impose jail in this case, and since I made that decision about a week ago, I’ve had peace,” the judge said. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t have grief. It doesn’t mean that Meleyna’s life wasn’t worth anything.”
Instead, Fernandez-Ely fined Tinner $1,000 and sentenced her to five years of unsupervised probation and 360 hours of community service, which must be completed within three years. Conditions of the probation include Tinner not driving during the first two years of the term. Any traffic violations during the last three years of probation, which expires April 21, 2020, will constitute a violation of probation.
The judge also ordered Tinner to participate in the 9th Judicial District’s restorative justice program and sit on the victim-impact panel for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, despite lab tests at Valley View Hospital showing she tested negative for alcohol after the crash.
Kistner’s relatives stayed on the same message they’ve been pushing since the accident. The Colorado State Patrol tested both Kistner and Thul for drugs and alcohol after the accident, but didn’t test Tinner. Relatives also have maintained that she should have been charged with a felony.
After the hearing, Kistner’s family released the following statement: “We are extremely disappointed that a human life isn’t valued any more than what’s been shown during this criminal case. For our family to lose a child in a crash, and never have closure by knowing the true facts, is heartbreaking. The fact that Colorado laws do not mandate full testing of all drivers in which there is a fatality and/or serious bodily injury is unconscionable. Lawmakers and public officials should be ashamed at creating and working within this dysfunctional system. Families like ours, and numerous others, will never know the true reason our child was killed, and it will be a struggle to move on.”
Tinner, however, told the court that the reason for the crash, which happened at about 9 p.m. near mile marker 55 near the Avalanche Creek Road intersection, was evident.
“I was not drinking, I was not doing drugs, I was not texting, I was not speeding,” she said. “I was sleepy and looking for a place to pull over. …. I don’t remember seeing the car, I don’t remember hearing the horn. This is just an act of God.”
Tinner, who suffered extensive injuries and walks with the aid of a cane, said she was a victim of fatigue and stress at the time of the crash. Primarily a teacher, she had been working three jobs to make ends meet while raising her son and daughter who are now 14 and 18 years old, respectively. The divorced mother was en route home to Basalt from Crested Butte when she crashed her 2010 Honda hatchback into the 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier.
“I am grateful she died instantaneously from a broken neck,” Tinner said.
She added: “I am deeply, deeply sorry for the loss of her life and for the pain this has caused her friends, family and Daniel.”
Tinner said she already has experienced “natural punishments” from the wreck, including a lame leg, five surgeries and arthritis in her foot.
“I will always walk like Frankenstein,” she said.
Tinner said she wants to help develop a mobile app that will let motorists know when they are drowsy or about to fall asleep. The judge said that work could count toward her community service.
“I still have work to do,” Tinner said.
The judge asked Tinner about her previous speeding tickets, which total at least three. Tinner said they were a symptom of driving in rural areas where there’s not much traffic.
After the hearing, Heather Kistner said Tinner’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for her previous speeding tickets paralleled her reaction to the August crash. The stepmother said Tinner was “deflecting” and is a “habitual speeder.”
Remo Kistner said the family hasn’t decided if it will pursue civil action against Tinner.
Tinner is due back in court June 16, when the judge will check to see if she has enrolled in a restorative justice program and MADD and has begun her community service work. Tinner also is up for a three-month review July 21.
In the meantime, prosecutor Andrea Bryan has 60 days to file a motion for restitution, which could include travel expenses for the family members, many of whom flew to Colorado from the Midwest to attend last month’s two-day sentencing hearing.
The judge, however, didn’t sentence Tinner — who had an emotional breakdown on the second day and was hospitalized — then, leading to Tuesday’s hearing.
Meleyna Kistner, who was from Illinois, and Thul were traveling across the West that fateful night. Thul was looking into a job possibility in Oregon; earlier that day they had visited the Maroon Bells. The judge said Kistner’s passion for auto technology should be honored, perhaps with a future vehicle bearing her name.