By Darrell Todd Maurina
Harry Downey, 70, showed no emotion Friday in Curry County District Court as jurors found him guilty of homicide by vehicle after four hours of deliberation, a verdict that could put him behind bars in state prison for the next six years.
Downey, a farmer from Melrose, also faces an upcoming civil lawsuit for wrongful death, seeking damages from both Downey and his farm corporation. However, the jury found him innocent of a charge that he was driving on the wrong side of the road on July 13, 2001, when Anna Beth Austin died on a road north of Melrose.
Defense attorney Hal Greig asked Judge Stephen Quinn to order a pre-sentence report before passing judgment on Downey, who according to court records has remained free on a $10,000 appearance bond since May 2002. Quinn agreed to that request and decided to let Downey remain free without changing his bond conditions since he has made all required court appearances. However, he added new conditions requiring him to take all medications, not use alcohol, and have no contact with family members of the victim.
Greig said prior to the verdict that, as a matter of policy, he does not comment to the media on his court cases. Downey family members present in the courtroom also declined comment, and a call to Downey’s home was not returned.
Following the verdict, special prosecutor Tom Rutledge called together a meeting of Austin family members and reporters to explain what comes next.
Rutledge said a final disposition of the case may take another year to two years. The key grounds for any appeal, he said, will be whether Downey, who wasn’t tested for alcohol until six hours after the crash and then had a blood alcohol level of .04, was actually intoxicated at the time of the crash. The legal blood alcohol level in New Mexico is .08, and the jury heard conflicting medical testimony on what Downey’s blood alcohol level would have been six hours earlier.
“I would be totally shocked if they didn’t appeal it,” Rutledge said. “I looked to mitigate a lot of the basis for an appeal by allowing a lot of things to pass without objection in court. Obviously, their main appellate issue is whether there was sufficient evidence of alcohol.”
Some family members asked if prosecutors could request a review of Downey’s case by state officials. Rutledge said he didn’t plan to go that route.
“Does anyone in this room really believe that the Department of Corrections wants a 70-year-old inmate? It doesn’t do our case any good to have the Department of Corrections answer that. We will probably get a better answer from our local people,” Rutledge said. “The probation office does the interviews with the defendant, does a medical history, and will talk to (Anna Beth Austin’s husband) Dorman.”
“We are very pleased with the jury verdict,” Dorman Austin said. “It took a long time to get this done, and we are grateful to Mr. Rutledge for all the work he’s done with us.”
Anna Beth Austin’s uncle Leon Coffey drove 90 miles to Clovis each day from his home in Logan to watch the trial, and said he was glad he did.
“All I know is I have a little bit of relief that it’s over,” Coffey said. “I’m not out for blood, but justice has been done and that’s what we wanted.”
“We lost a lovely niece, wife, mother, daughter, and cousin,” said O.B. Coffey, another of the victim’s uncles who taught for years at Clovis Community College and what is now Mesalands Community College.
“I don’t want to gloat or anything like that,” he said. “We know this won’t bring Beth back, but it may prevent someone else from losing their life.”