By Darrell Todd Maurina
A 70-year-old farmer from Melrose on Wednesday was sentenced to two years in state prison for vehicular homicide, despite warnings from his attorney that prison time could be a death sentence.
District Judge Stephen Quinn decided to go beyond the Department of Corrections’ pre-sentencing recommendation that Harry Downey receive five years probation with no jail time.
Downey was convicted Jan. 30 of homicide by vehicle in the July 13, 2001, death of Anna Beth Austin, 57, on a road north of Melrose.
“Taking into account that Mr. Downey has no criminal history, I don’t believe it would be appropriate to impose probation solely in this case, nor to impose the maximum penalty of six years,” Quinn said.
“This is truly a tragedy for Curry County and the town of Melrose. There are no clear winners and my heart goes out to both sides in this case.”
In his only statement to the court, Downey said he regretted Anna Beth Austin’s death.
“I am real sorry and if I could trade places with Beth Austin, I would,” Downey said. “To everyone this has affected, I really want you to know I’m sorry.”
Downey’s attorney said he expected to appeal the sentence but declined comment to the media following the verdict.
Quinn also imposed four years of probation to follow the prison sentence with conditions including alcohol screening and treatment as required by the screener and no use of alcohol.
Quinn heard more than an hour of testimony — victim impact statements, character statements from Downeys’ friends and family, and arguments from special prosecutor Tom Rutledge and defense attorney Hal Grieg — before handing down the sentence.
Prior to the sentencing, Grieg said he objected to some of the victim impact statements from family members.
“I remember hearing that people kept saying he will do this again, he had run people off the road, but none of those statements were presented at trial,” Grieg said. “I’m not aware of anyone in this courtroom who could come up to this podium and testify under oath that they have seen him drinking since the incident. He doesn’t need to be rehabilitated, he doesn’t have a drinking problem that I am aware of.”
Grieg reminded the judge of a separate civil lawsuit filed against Downey and his farm corporation by Austin’s husband.
“These folks do have a civil lawsuit seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars. The monetary effect of that is going to have a lifetime effect not only on him but also his children and his spouse who have worked with him all these years,” Grieg said. “If you send him to prison, that is a death sentence. Will two deaths really help in this?”
Downey’s long-term banker, Jeff Nunn of Citizens Bank of Tucumcari, told Quinn that a jail term for Downey might even harm the Austin family.
“I am somewhat familiar with the civil case that is pending against Harry Downey by the Austin family and I feel his incarceration will impair his ability to settle,” Nunn said.
Downey family members declined to comment on the specifics of the case following the sentence.
“The trial coverage has been one-sided; our case has not gotten out,” said one relative. “Because she (Beth Austin) worked for the county, she is being viewed as better than us.”
Meeting with family and friends of Beth Austin after the decision, the special prosecutor appointed to handle the case said he was satisfied with Quinn’s decision and warned that Grieg’s appeal will take time.
“What I can tell you is this could take six months to 2 1/2 years until all the issues are settled,” Rutledge said. “I want him subject to random urinalysis tests so we can be sure he’s not drinking anytime, ever.”
Rutledge said if Downey does drink again, he would be violating the terms of his release and could face up to six years in jail. If that doesn’t happen and if Downey receives his maximum good time allowance, he could be out of jail in one rather than two years. As a convicted felon, he will also lose his right to vote and to own, bear or possess firearms.
Dorman Ray Austin, Mary Beth Austin’s widower, said the verdict was acceptable.
“We would always like to have more, but it was an equitable thing the judge did,” Austin said. “With the condition of his health and age, and all that was said, I think it’s fair.”