The 68-year-old woman who drove into a 6-year-old girl as she exited her school bus on U.S. Highway 93 in November 2019 has entered an Alford plea after reaching an agreement with prosecutors and the victim’s family through criminal mediation.
Patricia Ann Berliner of Fortine was charged last April with felony criminal endangerment and the case was moved into mediation in October, a rarely used criminal procedure enacted by the state in 2007. By entering an Alford plea, Berliner maintains her innocence but acknowledges that a jury would be likely to convict her based on the available evidence.
Mike McMahon, a district court judge in Lewis and Clark County, presided over the mediation in December 2020 and the parties reached an undisclosed agreement on a recommended sentence. Judge Dan Wilson will have the opportunity to accept that sentence at a hearing on June 10. Criminal endangerment is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Mediation allows the parties, including the victim and, in this case, her family, the opportunity to address each other in private and reach what they feel is a fair resolution without enduring a public jury trial.
Wilson, in addressing the courtroom at a change-of-plea hearing on Thursday, said that while mediations are rare, “there is value in resolving matters in this fashion.”
“Mediation has a value and that value is the parties come to an understanding and the result is to move past recrimination and a desire for revenge,” Wilson said. “Each party recognizes the humanity in everyone else.”
The accident on Nov. 12, 2019 ended with 6-year-old Jordana Hubble suffering critical injuries that court documents say she will continue to recover from “for her entire life.” Hubble spent several months in the hospital after the accident but has since returned home to live with her family. The incident has drawn an outpouring of support from the community, which has organized several fundraisers to help the family cover significant medical expenses and pushed for legislative change. A nonprofit was also created in Hubble’s name to promote school bus safety.
At Thursday’s hearing, Wilson read aloud a filing submitted by both parties — the stipulated factual basis for mediation agreement — that outlined the events leading up to the crash and previewed what a jury trial could have looked like.
On the day of the accident, a school bus made its final stop on a stretch of U.S. Highway 93 north of Whitefish where the speed limit is 70 miles per hour. At the stop, the children exiting the bus must cross the highway. The bus driver activated the yellow amber lights on the bus 200 feet before the stop and, when the bus came to a complete stop, triggered a button that opened the door, activated the red lights on the bus and caused the stop sign arm to extend.
At that time, however, the bus driver also noticed two vehicles approaching from the opposite direction and saw that the first vehicle was not going to stop despite having ample opportunity to do so. Berliner was driving the second vehicle. According to the stipulated facts, the bus driver said she told the children preparing to exit the bus to stay there but did not close the door. Closing the door would have caused the red lights on the bus to turn off.
A driver behind the bus, however, who happened to be the step-grandfather of the three children onboard, said he did see the door close, stating that he observed the kids bang into each other as they walked into the closed door. Trevert Adkins then said he saw the bus door reopen after the first vehicle passed, and Adkins also said he saw Berliner, in the second vehicle, tap her breaks as if she had been slowing as she approached the bus.
Testimony in the stipulated facts also comes from a crash reconstruction expert and retired police officer, David Rochford, who said he estimated Berliner was traveling between 26 and 30 miles per hour at the time of the accident, well below the posted 70 mile per hour limit. Rochford “used the statement of Mr. Adkins because it was the most consistent” and said that had the bus door closed — and the red lights turned off — Berliner would have had little time to react and nowhere to turn to avoid a collision with Hubble once the red lights came back on and she noticed Hubble in the roadway. Rochford placed the blame for the accident on the bus driver.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, planned to argue that “simply the presence of a stopped school bus places a heightened responsibility of awareness on the part of other motorists.” They also noted that Berliner said she saw red lights at some point before the accident and that she “did not believe she was required to stop for the bus.”
There was no indication that Berliner was distracted by a cell phone, car radio or anything else at the time of the accident, and a blood test revealed no substances in her system that would have hindered her ability to operate a motor vehicle.
Berliner will make one final court appearance on June 10 for sentencing, bringing an end to the high-profile and highly emotional case.
“The parties were able to talk to each other, ask questions and say how they truly felt,” the stipulation of facts concludes. “At the end of the mediation, all parties, including Jordana’s family, were in agreement with the proposed resolution in this matter.”
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