After more than a year of suffering the loss of Klamath resident Kenneth Jones and reliving his death through the trial of the man responsible for it, members of the Jones family say they can finally smile.
Jones, 67, died when a GMC Sierra truck driven by former Crescent Elk Middle School assistant principal Coulter Mann drifted into the southbound lane of U.S. Highway 101, south of Smith River, smashing Jones’ Ford Focus on Dec. 21, 2012.
About two hours later, Mann, 33, was lying in a hospital bed having his blood drawn for an alcohol test but not before arguing with a California Highway Patrol officer. He eventually relented, but verbally announced he was refusing the test, which showed a blood-alcohol count of 0.20. The legal limit is 0.08.
A jury convicted Mann on Thursday of driving under the influence with a special allegation for causing great bodily injury, but after further deliberation on Friday they couldn’t unanimously reach a decision on a charge of driving at or above 0.08 BAC and causing injury. They were 7-5 in favor of guilt on that count, but a unanimous vote is required to convict.
Mann is set to be sentenced on March 3, when he will face a state prison term ranging from 16 months to six years.
“My life has been turned upside down,” said Luella Jones, Kenneth’s partner. “I lost one of my oldest friends. I’ve known him for longer than Coulter Mann has been alive.”
The two met when Luella was 16. He was her first love, she said. Their lives drifted apart, but they reunited after they had raised their own families.
“He always used to say it was fate,” said Luella Jones. “This never should have happened. We were supposed to spend the rest of our lives together.”
‘I’ve been stuck in time’
Following the guilty verdict Thursday, family and friends of Jones, who had sat through the six-day trial, met Deputy District Attorney Todd Zocchi outside of the courtroom with hugs, tears and smiles, showing their gratitude to the prosecutor.
Jones’ family said the DA’s Office was helpful and accommodating throughout the case.
“It’s renewed my faith in the justice system,” said Luella Jones.
She said she was angry with how the defense handled the case, in her opinion attempting to place the blame on factors other than Mann’s decision to drink and drive.
“I know he’s doing what he had to do, but the way they did it diminished Kenneth’s life,” said Luella Jones. “Mann doesn’t think he did anything wrong. They acted like it was nothing.”
Kendra Jones said she thought Mann should have accepted accountability from the onset for killing her father.
Kenneth Jones was a grandfather, father and all-around loving family man, she said, adding the hearty laugh he shared at family gatherings will be missed.
The Christmas following her father’s death, Kendra Jones was writing his obituary. A few days later, on his birthday, the family buried him.
“It’s like I’ve been stuck in time for the past year,” she said.
The story line runs deeper than one man getting into his vehicle after having too much to drink and killing another man, the family said.
“The way I looked at it, he was going to kill somebody that night,” said Luella Jones.
Mann was at a party for four hours at Crescent Elk Principal Bill Hartwick’s house along with other Del Norte Unified School District administrators who testified Mann didn’t seem intoxicated.
The two administrators, Hartwick and Smith River Elementary School principal Paige Swan, who were the last to speak with Mann in a driveway just prior to his departure, did not cooperate with the District Attorney’s Office in the case. Hartwick cited potential civil liability as a reason, and Swan testified he had already given authorities a statement and he had nothing to offer that would help Mann’s defense.
Kendra Jones said the case doesn’t stop with the verdict; she has a son who attends Crescent Elk and will continue to attend Del Norte schools.
“This doesn’t stop for my family. I have to deal with all these people still,” said Kendra Jones. “It made me sad they wouldn’t stand up for what’s right.”
‘They thought he was sober’
Ed Mann, co-counsel for the defense and Coulter’s father, said the community should not be angry with other school administrators who were at the party.
“When my son left there, they thought he was sober. He thought he was sober,” said Ed Mann after the verdicts were announced.
He reiterated that his son didn’t display nystagmus — involuntary eye movements — during a test performed by an ER physician checking for brain trauma about an hour after the crash. A nystagmus test is also normally performed by authorities as part of their sobriety tests, but Mann declined a CHP officer’s request to do so.
The test by the ER physician was an indicator that Mann was still below 0.08 BAC, and that something happened to cause his BAC to rapidly rise in the 20 minutes between the eye test and a blood test medical staff performed, Ed Mann said.
“That was the argument we made to the jury,” said Ed Mann. “They did find impairment.”
But jurors disagreed on whether the prosecution proved Mann was above the legal BAC limit of 0.08 at the time of the crash.
Jurors speak out
A group of jurors outside of the courtroom explained their reasoning behind the verdicts.
They wavered 7-5 on the second charge because there wasn’t enough evidence to show he was legally intoxicated at the time of the crash.
They said they didn’t factor in the defense’s theory that Mann experienced a dramatic rise in BAC after the crash. One juror called that “far-fetched.”
One of the pieces of evidence they considered was the amount of alcohol Mann testified to drinking at the party, which they felt couldn’t definitely prove he was above a 0.08 BAC.
A major factor in their decision to acquit on the second charge was a lack of nystagmus, as the ER physician testified to.
“That was reasonable doubt for me,” stated one juror.
“I feel it broke our hearts for both sides,” said one juror. “I want everyone to know how seriously we took this from both sides.”