Sending The Message That’s Seldom Received

by Bruce McEwen, September 21, 2016

The CHP reported at the time:

“…. Patrol officers were dispatched to the scene just before 8pm February 26, 2016, to find that a 2009 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck had collided with the victim's Volvo S60.  Mendocino County Sheriff's Office Capt. Greg Van Patten said before noon Saturday that the 81-year-old victim was identified as Juan Juan.

“The driver of the truck, identified as Jared Soinila, 40, of Redwood Valley, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, and following treatment for minor injuries, was transported to the Mendocino County Jail where he is being held on allegations of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and DUI with priors. His bail was set at $200,000.

“Juan Juan was found to be trapped and unconscious in the vehicle, and was later pronounced dead at the scene. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office was called to the scene to begin a coroner's investigation.

The Ukiah Valley Fire Authority also responded to treat a passenger who was in the victim's car, identified by the CHP as 72-year-old Juana Juan. She was transported to the Ukiah Valley Medical Center with major injuries."

Judge David Nelson didn’t want to send Jared Soinila to prison for gross vehicular manslaughter — Count One, and Count Two, DUI resulting in great bodily harm — but the judge felt he had to “send a message to the community” that driving under the influence will not be tolerated by the courts regardless of Mr. Soinila having done “everything humanly possible” to show his remorse.

Jared Soinila

Soinila

And indeed, Soinila, from his booking photo, presents the very portrait of regret. If his portrait is guide, the defendant is a feeling, decent person who knows in his bones he’s responsible for a terrible death and injury. He might as well have rolled a six-pack of hand grenades into the Juan family, such is the damage he did to them.

Judge Nelson said, “What makes this case especially egregious was the extreme level of intoxication and the vulnerability of the victims, and although the defendant has acknowledged that he is an alcoholic and has taken steps to address his problems, it was nonetheless a horrible thing and as the medical bills are still coming in, the restitution will have to be reserved. I’ve received 65 letters on behalf of both parties, so this is obviously a case the community has a great deal of concern over; probation is recommending a minimum of six years in the state prison, and while I’m not inclined to impose it I’ll hear what both sides have to say.”

Defense attorney Jan Cole-Wilson began, “With a very heavy heart, my client sits here today with heartfelt grief for what he’s done, for his awful and horrible actions on that day. But he has done everything humanly possible to atone for what he’s done to the Juan family on that day of February 26th. And to his own family! Mr. Juan’s death and the horrible injuries to his wife, Juana.

“But he does not have prior DUIs, he’s not a repeat offender as the Ukiah Daily Journal has stated, and he did not plead guilty to avoid trial or to keep the true facts from coming out. He ‘pled to the sheet’ as we lawyers say, which means he pled to what he was charged with – there was no plea-bargaining, as some have suggested. He did it so that the victims would not have to suffer through the long process that a trial in a case like this always ends up being.

“Also, I would like to correct the mistaken impression that a sentence to probation does not mean he’ll be fancy-free to go on like nothing happened. Mr. Soinila has been applying to Delancy Street, which is not a luxury program – that’s another misconception, because it’s so hard to get into – it’s hard to get into because it is a rigorous two to four year commitment.

“A case like this, which is so sad in all respects, can be hard to come to grips with. But what it entails is a weighing and balancing procedure, first of all to determine whether Mr. Soinila would be a danger to society; and he has, from the very beginning, begun addressing his alcohol problem, which began by admitting he had one. He started going to AA while still in custody and when he got out he followed up with the Delancy Street application, and since then he’s been every day to AA and a grief counselor… I’ve watched him and he is sincere in his utter grief.

“My mother has a saying, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ and I think it could have happened to anyone, and I know of many people who come out of five, six or seven years in prison and they’ve spent the whole time getting high! My client’s sponsor at AA went to prison for the same thing and Mr. Soinila’s time would be better spent in doing something useful rather than going to prison.

“There are many factors in mitigation. While he denied, at first, that he was the driver — his alcohol blood level was 2.0 — when he found out he’d killed someone he was devastated. I would ask the court to allow him a chance to make amends, which is a precept of Alcoholics Anonymous, that’s what I’m asking for today.”

Mr. Soinila then stood and, trembling visibly, read a letter describing his sorrow and apologizing to the victims, Mrs. Juan and her family. He choked up and wept quietly a few times before he was finished.

Prosecutor Josh Rosenfeld called the three adult Juan children to read their own statements into the record. The first daughter, after expressing her grief at having lost her father, went on to enumerate the injuries sustained by her mother, and the “miracle that she wasn’t paralyzed.” A broken neck. Broken sternum. Fractured back and ribs on both sides. Fractured lumbar. Still wearing a neck brace. Had just had another surgery on her neck. Unable to swallow. Was carrying a bag disguised as a purse for the feeding tubes and IV for antibiotics. Has to wear a back brace, which has caused a new injury to develop on her spine. Has had to struggle with pain every day and night since the crash. Not to mention the emotional pain of having lost her husband.

Ms. Juan said she had no anger towards Mr. Soinila, and was glad he was addressing his drinking problem, but that something had to be done to try and prevent this kind of thing from happening to others; a message needed to be sent to the community that it won’t be tolerated.

Another daughter rose and expressed her experience in the on-going tragedy by reading a sampling of text messages between the family members on a typical day. These succinct comments illustrated a picture of constant misery and steadily developing complications which have completely changed the lives of the entire family, “all because Mr. Soinila drove up to spend the day drinking and fishing at the Talmage dam, then went out to El Dorado and drank more and finally came across the double yellow line and then he told one of the first responders that the driver ran away up the hill, and more time was lost looking for the driver on a wild goose chase.”

Some of the family members, including grandchildren, had been following their doomed patriarch in their own vehicle. Another said she later saw Jared Soinila at the ER refusing to take a blood test, but at the time “I didn’t know it was him.”

Mrs. Juana Juan slowly rose to address the court. She told how she had met Juan in 1969, how they’d changed their names to Juan and Juana Juan and moved to Potter Valley in 1973 to raise their family. Her story was the poignant one of immigrants struggling to make a good life for themselves.

Mrs. Juan’s physical condition is so obviously debilitating and painful, one might have expected her to demand revenge. But it was her courage and determination and generosity of spirit that shone through her words to the court. Mrs. Juan maintained that she was not angry with Mr. Soinila, but it was also true that she felt like she was the one being punished and she hadn’t done anything wrong.

Deputy DA Rosenfeld rose to say he did not think probation was an appropriate sentence.

“Mr. Soinila says there’s nothing he can do to bring Mr. Juan back or to stop the suffering of Mrs. Juan and the rest of the family, but there is one thing he can do; he can give up 10 years of his life. In a case like this the court can’t focus on Mr. Soinila’s rehabilitation and recovery, laudable as that may be. The court has to put the interests of the community ahead of Mr. Soinila’s interests in his R&R.

“The family has shown themselves to be incredibly forgiving. And the Ukiah Daily Journal reported priors which was untrue, but he’s in his 40s and should have known better than to go out drinking without having a safe way to get back – yet, he still made that fatal decision… to get a bunch of alcohol and fishing rods and go up to the dams without making any plans on how to get home; quite the opposite, I’m afraid.

“There’s no way to justify probation in this case. It’s all well and good that Mr. Soinila has decided to address his alcoholism; but his alcoholism isn’t the problem; it’s his driving. And for that, serious consequences are necessary. Now, I know Ms. Plaza of the probation office thinks he’s resourceful and committed to his recovery, but I think sending a message to the community is more important than any of that. We are told that there is a difference between right and wrong and that when we choose to do wrong there are consequences.

“Why should Mrs. Juan get a life sentence – which is what her injuries amount to – and the person who caused it gets off on probation? By the time you are in your 40s you should know you can’t drink that much and get behind the wheel; and for those who think they can, the court needs to send a message that it will not be condoned.”

Judge Nelson said it was a difficult case due to the enormity of the impact it had had on everyone involved. He said there had been five cases in Mendocino County where fatalities had resulted from DUI cases, and that four years in prison had been the average sentence handed down; except one case handled by Judge Clayton Brennan, where the defendant was given 10 years, but in that case there had been two deaths.

“So this is not a case where probation would be appropriate; it requires a substantial prison sentence, in the words of the probation officer’s report ‘to give the victim’s family hope and faith in the criminal justice system.’ Mrs. Juan feels like she’s the only one being punished and so I’m going to follow the recommendation by probation and sentence the defendant to six years as to count one and run the five years for count two concurrently, with only 15 percent credit, so he’ll have to serve 85 percent in the state prison, with 55 credits for time served.”

There were also about $4200 in fines and fees, and some confusion developed later when District Attorney David Eyster said the time for count two couldn’t be run concurrently. At press time it was still being disputed, but an old message had been sent, and perhaps a few drunks got it.

Afterwards, I spoke with Jared Soinila’s AA sponsor who said, “Jared got a sweetheart deal. I had to do 14 years for the same thing.”

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