Family members of a mother and her son killed in a 2009 wreck on U.S. Highway 93 said they were surprised to learn the woman responsible for the crash will be released this year.
However, Amber Young also said she hopes that Justine Winter, the Evergreen woman who went to prison after being convicted on two counts of deliberate homicide, has found “meaning and purpose” in her life. On Sept. 21, the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole granted Winter, 22, parole upon completion of a pre-release program in Billings. It is likely that Winter will be free by the end of the year.
“It was sooner than any of us expected,” said Young, sister and aunt to the crash’s victims, Erin Thompson, 35, and Caden Odell, 13. “But I need to do what will make my heart happy and for me that’s to wish Justine well and send her love.
“I hope she has learned skills for coping and dealing with emotion and that she understands the value of life, both her own and others,” Young said.
Winter was 16 years old in March 2009 when she got into a fight with her boyfriend and later that night deliberately drove her car across the centerline of U.S. Highway 93 north of Kalispell, crashing into another vehicle, driven by Thompson, who was pregnant at the time. Thompson and Odell were both killed in the crash, but Winter survived. In February 2011, Winter was found guilty of two counts of deliberate homicide. She was later given two concurrent 30-year sentences with 15 years suspended on each.
During the trial, Winter never apologized for what happened. But according to Young, Winter sent a letter to the family last year and expressed remorse for the crash. Winter first applied for parole in 2014 but the board denied her request. However, it recommended her for a pre-release center.
According to board executive director Timothy Allred, Winter has been in the program since December 2014. She spent the first six months as an inmate worker and is now living at a pre-release center in Billings. At the pre-release center, Winter has been able to get a job and go into the public.
“(A pre-release center) helps people transition back into the community,” he said.
Now that the board has approved Winter’s eventual release, she will work with a case manager to create a plan for future housing and employment. A parole officer must approve the plan before she is released. Winter is expected to move to Missoula following her release.
Young said the last few years have been tough for her family but that she is hopeful that Winter will be able to do something worthwhile with her life.
“Erin, Caden and the baby are forever in our hearts,” Young said. “And I hope they are in Justine’s heart too.”