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Man sentenced to six months for texting while driving death near Grandin, N.D.

HILLSBORO, N.D. - Amy Hawkinson didn't know what to expect from Justin Jalbert's court hearing Wednesday, but she brought her dead husband's portrait with her anyway, the one stained with her tears. That portrait smiled up at her from the prosecu...

 

HILLSBORO, N.D. – Amy Hawkinson didn’t know what to expect from Justin Jalbert’s court hearing  Wednesday, but she brought her dead husband’s portrait with her anyway, the one stained with her tears.  

That portrait smiled up at her from the prosecution’s table as Jalbert, in a last-minute plea deal, accepted responsibility in the crash that killed David Hawkinson last June.

“My concern here is raising awareness of texting and driving,” the widow of the 50-year-old Fargo man said Wednesday. “Preventing future lives, future husbands, future fathers from being lost.”

Jalbert’s plea to negligent homicide in Traill County District Court included an admission that he’d been speeding, as well as texting, when he failed to see Hawkinson’s bicycle in front of him as he drove on County Road 81 about a mile north of Grandin last June.

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A plea deal reached just before Wednesday’s hearing called for a one-year pronounced sentence, with six months of it behind bars. After his release, Jalbert would be on the 24/7 sobriety program for 1½ years and supervised probation for four years. He’d also be required to serve 100 hours of community service, speaking to the public about the dangers of texting and driving.

Judge Thomas Olson rejected the plea deal’s one-year sentence because it could have eventually converted the Class C felony conviction to a misdemeanor. Jalbert had initially been charged with manslaughter, a more serious Class B felony.

“I would consider it a grave disrespect to this family to dispose of this as a misdemeanor,” Olson said.

The judge instead increased the pronounced sentence to five years, with the other conditions remaining the same, including the six months in jail – meaning 4½ years of the sentence was suspended.

Olson said he wanted it understood that Jalbert will serve the rest of the five-year sentence if he violates any terms of his probation. Five years is the maximum penalty allowed for a Class C felony.

Hawkinson’s widow said she was grateful for Olson’s “humanity” in considering her husband’s family and friends in the sentence.

Jalbert, 27, of Grandin, originally told North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers he was looking for something in the glove box at the time of the crash. He later admitted he’d been texting before the crash.

“I never had any intention of hurting anybody,” Jalbert said in court. “If I could change it, I would.”

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While Jalbert had been drinking before the crash, Traill County State’s Attorney Stuart Larson said Jalbert’s blood alcohol content was below 0.08 percent, the legal threshold for drunken driving. Larson did not say what Jalbert’s BAC was.

Jalbert’s attorney pointed out that Jalbert stopped immediately to try to help Hankinson and expressed remorse about the crash in messages on Facebook.

His attorney also said that Jalbert had a limited criminal history before the crash that killed Hawkinson, though his record does include more than a dozen moving violations, including one for drunken driving.

David Hawkinson worked at Valley Imports in south Fargo and was well-known in the local cycling and running communities.

His brother, Don Hawkinson, said it was hard to take Jalbert’s Facebook messages to heart, given that he’d lied in them about digging in the glove box.

The family had wanted Jalbert to go on record admitting to texting while driving, he said.

Don Hawkinson also spoke at the sentencing, telling the court, “I understand we can’t bring my brother back. But if we can help others not go through what we’ve gone through – that’s our goal.”

Hawkinson’s family, and Larson, said it was time for state legislators to stiffen penalties for people caught texting while driving.

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As Olson finished pronouncing the sentence, Don Hawkinson met him as he left, and gave the judge a hug.

“Texting while driving. Is there anything more senseless, is there anything more easy to not do?” Olson said. “I wish I could give comfort to your family.”

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