Twenty months in jail given for homicide by vehicle
Curtis Yandall, the driver of an SUV charged in connection with the death of his cousin Darren Smith “Mifi” Tualaulelei in October 2010 was sentenced to 20 months in jail last Friday. The sentencing was handed down by Chief Justice Michael Kruse.
Yandall was originally charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, which are both felonies. However, in a plea agreement with the government, the defendant pled guilty to homicide by vehicle amended from Criminally Negligent Homicide while the government moved to dismiss the manslaughter count.
The plea agreement was accepted by the Chief Justice last Friday prior to sentencing. Homicide by vehicle is punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of $5,000 or both.
Yandall was sentenced to five years in jail, however execution of sentencing was suspended and the defendant was placed on five years’ probation under the condition that he serve 20 months in jail.
Kruse ordered the defendant to serve 180 days (6 months) but the remaining time will be served in two years, August 11, 2014. However, a probation hearing will also be held that same day.
The court also allowed the defendant out on work release given that he’s enrolled with the American Samoa Community College.
The Chief Justice urged the defendant to take advantage of the chance given to him. As another condition of probation, the defendant was ordered not to consume alcohol, purchase or acquire alcohol, enter bars and taverns, or congregate with those who are under the influence of alcohol.
He was also ordered to undergo alcohol counseling, is subject to random testing for alcohol in his system and must not operate a vehicle within a year. He must also pay the statutory law enforcement fee of $10, remain a law abiding citizen and visit probation regularly.
Prior to the Chief Justice handing down the sentence, the court heard from both sides.
Yandall’s lawyer Sharron Rancourt told the court the defendant, who is 33 years of age, had difficulty holding a job in the past, and he’s currently enrolled at the American Samoa Community College, with nine remaining courses before she graduates.
Rancourt also brought to the court’s attention that the Tafuna Correctional Facility should be mindful of the fact that the defendant is a fa’afafine.
(Samoa News notes that throughout the sentencing both the feminine and masculine gender designations were used to identify the defendant and actions; and has chosen to keep the different designations, in line with the statements made in court.)
Rancourt noted that Yandall’s actions are inexcusable, however an apology was made to the victim’s parents and family. She recommended the defendant be sentenced to probation, however if the court wishes to place her in jail, please allow Yandall to attend school, she said.
Rancourt called to the stand three character witnesses for Yandall — Alofania Panama, Louisa Tuiteleleapaga and former President of the Society of Fa’afafine in American Samoa (SOFIA) Athena Mauga. Yandall’s cousin.
Panama, who grew up with the defendant said Yandall is “one of a kind” — who is a loving person that has never been in trouble before. In tears, Panama asked the court to be lenient with sentencing. “Everyone makes mistakes and through your mistakes, you learn” she said.
She asked the court to look within their hearts to please forgive her cousin, who meant no harm. The Chief Justice told Panama that the court does not look into the hearts of people, they have to look into the law.
Tuiteleleapaga, Yandall’s older sister, told the court the defendant would go out of her way for her friends, family and loved ones.
She described the defendant as a very social person who loved to attend functions and fundraisers; however after the incident occurred, the defendant changed and hardly left the house, she said.
Mauga, who is also a teacher at ASCC, noted the defendant is a committed member of SOFIA and is a strong willed person when it comes to promoting education to the young fa’afafine attending ASCC.
Yandall in tears stated that she’s very sorry for her action, which took the life of her cousin. “I have been irresponsible and did not mean any harm to my cousin and I accept full responsibility for my actions”.
She apologized to the victim’s parents who were present in court; and also apologized to her parents and to the court.
Assistant Attorney General Cecilia Reyna, who’s prosecuting the case, called to the stand Ailoa Tualaulelei, the victim’s father. The father told the court the defendant is his nephew, who was never in trouble since he was a kid and if it was up to him and his wife they would withdraw the case against the defendant.
He said, “My wife and I have already forgiven Curtis.”
Tualaulelei told the court that he blames himself as a parent, for not being keen on looking out for his children. The father noted that Mifi was the third of his five kids.
The father fought back tears when telling the court about his son; and while the father was speaking, his wife left the courtroom in tears. Assistant AG Reyna apologized to Tualaulelei for making him talk about his son who died as a result of the accident.
Reyna said the government also understands the defendant did not mean any harm to the victim, and noted that while the defendant has finally got her life in order, Mifi is gone due to her actions.
Reyna added the defendant knew that Mifi was in the back of the SUV.
The prosecutor noted the government does not oppose a probated sentence, however some jail term is warranted given that a life has been taken.
Kruse stated that “the court accepts the defendant did not intend to cause death to Mifi, however the court wants to be absolutely clear, it is not concerned with intentional killing, but with the intentional lack of operating a vehicle which shook the victim off the back of the vehicle.
“We’re concerned with the intentional violation of the law. Sadly, it cost the life of Mifi.”
Kruse explained that a vehicle is not a dangerous instrument, unless it’s misused; then it becomes a dangerous instrument. In this matter, he said, the vehicle was misused, and that is the case before the court.
Kruse stated this is a sad case, because it involves people who are related — and the defendant will carry the burden for the rest of his life, that it was his action that took the life of his cousin Mifi.
“The court has taken into account the testimony of the victim’s family, however the court has to overlook that, to deter others who misuse vehicles.
According to the government’s case, the victim fell off a truck that was driven by the defendant, and was not immediately taken to the hospital.
He was taken home instead. However, the next day he was admitted to the hospital and the Surgical Clinic doctor said the victim suffered a broken collar bone, and cracks on the base and left side of the skull. Seven days later the victim died.