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Mother of car crash victim: Legal system has to take a stricter view

OLIVIA -- Wendy Russell's frustrations with the legal system in the death of her son go beyond the anguish she feels in not being able to pursue restitution through the criminal system.

She also believes the legal system fails all of us when careless driving is only a misdemeanor offense in fatal accidents. An Oct. 20, 2009, accident on U.S. Highway 212 resulted in the death of her son, Josh Baldwin, 20, and caused severe injuries to two of his friends in the same vehicle.

Douglas Folkens, 56, of Hector, offered an Alford plea to a charge of careless driving in the tragic accident in which his pickup truck crossed the centerline and struck the car in which Baldwin was a passenger.

He is believed to have fallen asleep at the wheel, although Folkens testified that he has no memory of how the accident occurred.

Folkens escaped injury.

The charge for which Folkens was convicted is the same as for a teenager who might spin doughnuts in a parking lot, said David Torgelson, Renville County Attorney. He said the law gave him no other options but the charge he prosecuted.

To obtain a conviction for a greater offense, Torgelson said he would have to show that the defendant had been guilty of gross negligence; such as deliberately blowing through a stop sign, or consuming alcohol or other drugs.

None of those elements was present in this case, Torgelson noted.

Russell believes that when a fatality results, a careless driving charge should be a felony level offense, or at the very least a gross misdemeanor. If so, it would carry a penalty more appropriate to the harmful consequences of the action, she explained.

In this case, Folkens was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service. One option discussed at the sentencing was to have him devote those hours to a driver's education program in Renville County or Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

Russell said she wanted the court to order him to volunteer on behalf of an organization that is working for elevating the severity level of offenses for accidents in which drivers fall asleep.

Torgelson said bills were introduced in the state House and Senate last session that would have raised the severity level of traffic offenses to gross misdemeanors when there are fatalities, but they were not approved.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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