Before a judge sentenced her for double homicide, 18-year-old Justine Winter sat at the witness stand, fluctuating between fits of tears and nervous smiles.
She spoke to the families of Erin Thompson and Caden Odell, expressing sorrow for their loss while maintaining her position that she cannot say with certainty that she drove her car across the centerline on March 19, 2009.
Winter says she has no memory of that day, when 35-year-old Thompson, who was pregnant, and Odell, 13, were killed in a head-on crash near Kalispell.
“I would never hurt anyone,” Winter said. “And we don’t know; no one will ever know what happened March 19.”
“I’ve wanted to speak with you for two years now,” she said. “I’ve wanted to let you know my heart goes out to you. And as every single one of you came up here today and shared your heart, my heart was breaking.”
Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan asked Winter if she understood that a jury found her guilty of two counts of deliberate homicide, and that she would be held responsible for these crimes.
Winter said she understood. Corrigan then told her that what the victims’ families want is an apology for her actions that night.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Winter replied, but then added that she was unsure what other type of apology was expected of her.
Several hours later, District Court Judge Katherine Curtis handed Winter two 30-year sentences to the Department of Corrections that will run concurrently, with 15 years suspended on each count. Winter will have to serve half of her sentence, or seven and a half years, before she is eligible for parole.
In February, a jury found Winter guilty of intentionally driving her car into oncoming traffic knowing that her actions could kill the people in the vehicle she collided with.
During the Monday’s sentencing, a nearly full courtroom heard of loss and heartache from both sides as the victims’ families addressed Winter and as Winter’s family asked for leniency and compassion.
Thompson’s sister, Amber Young, spoke at length about how the loss has affected her family and expressed frustration that despite the jury’s verdict, Winter had yet to acknowledge her role in the crash.
“I think one of the biggest things of this that you have failed to grasp is the truth,” Young said.
Young explained how excited her family was to meet Thompson’s baby and to watch Caden grow and mature, but those hopes were erased along with three lives that night.
“To me, that’s just human-nature grounds for an apology if there ever was one,” Young said.
Young also said she hoped Winter spent enough time in custody to process the repercussions of the crash, even if she can’t remember the night itself.
“What I would like to see is for you to search your heart and come to the truthful conclusion of what you think your intentions were that night,” Young said. “Life is so valuable, Justine. This seems to be the message you were so sorely missing in the first place.”
Caden’s father, Craig Odell, said he left the Flathead after the crash since there was nothing anchoring him here anymore. He spoke pointedly to Winter when he took the stand.
“Every parent looks at their child and thinks they are the most special precious thing,” he said. “You took it. You did it. You need to own it. You killed my boy.”
“You are not the victim,” Odell said. “You are the criminal. You need to own it.”
Still, Odell asked the judge for leniency in Winter’s sentencing, telling Winter that she could still do something meaningful with her life and that she survived the crash for a reason.
Thompson’s husband, Jason Thompson, told Winter that he has worked hard to hold on to the belief that she did not want to harm his family two years ago, but it has been a difficult task.
“It would be impossible for me to explain the gravity of my grief,” Jason Thompson said. “I would never love anyone as much as I love them.”
He told Winter that all he has wanted through the lengthy court proceedings is an expression of compassion from her and her family, but instead he felt his family was put through the ringer with a trial and a civil lawsuit Winter brought against his wife’s estate last year.
The civil suit has since been pulled.
“When you’ve caused harm to somebody, the most important thing is to apologize,” Jason Thompson said. “We’ve waited, waited and waited for that.”
He added: “Quit saying you’re not responsible for their deaths.”
Many members of the victims’ families expressed sympathy for the Winter family as well, directing their comments toward Justine’s parents, Mary and Randy Winter.
“Mary and Randy, my heart breaks for you. As parents, I see you’re afraid of what lies ahead for your daughter,” Young said. “At least you still have your little girl.”
When she took the stand, Mary Winter told the Thompson and Johnson families that they have been in her heart since she found out they lost their loved ones. She gestured to four large photographs in the courtroom showing Thompson and Odell in happier times.
“I know these lovely people will not come back, and they’re beautiful,” Mary Winter said, speaking in bursts as she cried.
Mary Winter told the courtroom that she believes her daughter struggled through broken bones, serious internal organ injury and brain damage for a reason, and that Justine deserves to pursue a purpose in her life.
“I want you to know she has a heart,” Mary Winter said. “She is sorry and we are sorry from the bottom of our hearts. We feel it every day.”
Randy Winter asked the court and the victims’ families for compassion, saying that his daughter has “physical and emotional scars to carry around with her the rest of her life,” as well as a strong will to live.
County Attorney Ed Corrigan noted in his closing remarks that due to Winter’s age, her sentence will not necessarily mean she is headed to the Montana Women’s Prison. She will be placed in the Department of Correction’s custody, he said.
He also told Curtis that there would be an opportunity for Winter’s continued rehabilitation, but she must be held accountable for her actions “regardless of whether she remembers.”
Winter’s attorney, David Stufft, told Curtis that prison time would be counterproductive for his client and her rehabilitation.
“She will not be the same type of person who goes in to the system,” Stufft said. “She will be hardened.”
During sentencing, Curtis told the Thompson and Johnson families that she considered the events of March 19, 2009 a tragedy, and that nothing the court does could bring their loved ones back.
“I find your courage and compassion remarkable,” Curtis said. “Because of your example and how you have responded to this tragedy, it’s not difficult at all to believe that (Thompson and Caden) were everything you have described them to be.”
Curtis also told the victims’ families that as a representative of the court, she was sorry for the extended processes and shortcomings of the criminal justice system, but she would not punish Winter for these shortcomings.
However, an important part of the system – trial by a jury of community members – worked in this case, she said.
“Justine must be held accountable,” Curtis said.
The sentence would give Winter time to mature and get set on the right path, Curtis said, while also respecting the victims’ families wishes to see her serve time.
After the sentencing, Corrigan said the families had hoped for a minimum of 10 years, but they could handle seven and a half.
“That wasn’t quite what the families asked for, but they seem satisfied,” Corrigan said.
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