The father of a woman who died in a drunk driving crash last year expressed outrage today over what he sees as an overly-lenient plea deal for the man who killed his daughter.
Lawrence Press spoke to reporters alongside his attorney, Benjamin Luna, minutes after a court hearing in which Riley Watkins, 26, pleaded guilty to felony driving under the influence with death resulting. Today marks exactly a year since Watkins sped through a red light on Susie Wilson Road and crashed his car into a traffic pole, killing his girlfriend, 23-year-old Emma Press.
“This plea agreement does no justice,” said Luna, calling it an “insult” to his client and the public.
He went on to lambast the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office for a “culture of complacency” that allowed Watkins, who was arrested in September 2017 for punching and choking the elder Press, to be released in that case without conditions limiting his alcohol consumption despite eight mentions of his intoxication in the police affidavit. The fatal crash occurred less than two months later.
“It defies explanation,” Luna said of that decision. He claimed if the state’s attorney’s office had “done its job,” his client’s daughter may be alive today.
Deputy State’s Attorney Justin Jiron declined to respond to Luna’s accusations. In an email to The Reporter, he said it’s inappropriate for prosecutors to make comments outside of court that could impact a judge’s decision at sentencing. He added Press’ family will have the opportunity to address the court and “advise of their support or opposition to the plea agreement.”
Friday’s hearing centered on charges from these two separate incidents. In exchange for Watkins’ guilty plea, prosecutors dropped an additional charge of grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle with death resulting, reduced a charge of aggravated assault to simple assault and agreed to cap sentencing at eight to 15 years.
If convicted on the three original charges, Watkins could have faced up to 45 years in prison and fines of up to $35,000.
Luna said prosecutors declined to add additional charges for domestic assault when asked by his client.
“When this young man was assaulting and choking me,” Press said, “there was nothing simple about it.”
Judge Kevin Griffin said the defense can argue for a lesser sentence down to the minimum if it wishes. He set a pre-sentencing investigation and asked for a daylong sentencing hearing for a yet-to-be-determined date in January.
Luna said they “explored the possibility” of a lawsuit against the state but ran into statutory immunities that protect state’s attorneys from liability. Still, Luna said if there were a way to sue the state, he would, because it was “grossly negligent oversight.”
He called the case against Watkins illustrative of the “broken” and “weak” criminal justice system in Vermont.
“We have lost the voice of the victim in this state. We are coddling criminals,” said Luna, a former prosecutor. “Until we have smarter sentences and smarter agreements in situations like this, we’re going to have growing problems.”
Press penned a letter asking Judge Griffin to reexamine the facts of the case before allowing the deal to proceed. Griffin referenced the letter in court but said he hadn’t read it, noting statute defines the ways family members can weigh in on cases.
Press hoped the letter would “throw a little wrench” in the plea deal. He confirmed he will speak at the upcoming sentencing hearing, but wasn’t sure what punishment would represent justice in this case.
“I really don’t care about me. I’m still here. I’m still alive. My daughter isn’t,” he said. “I just want people to remember my daughter.”