Kaityn Dunaway pleaded no contest to misdemeanor manslaughter in a Santa Rosa courtoom Thursday, nine months after the Sonoma State volleyball star 2-year-old Calli Murray and her mother Ling in a Rohnert Park crosswalk while texting and driving. Calli died at the scene and Ling underwent months of surgeries and physical therapy.
The complaint by the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office alleged that the death resulted from Dunaway sending text messages while driving, failing to yield the right-of-way in a crosswalk and driving at an unsafe speed for the conditions.
Dunaway, who was remorseful in court, , officials said, after a tentative agreement was reached between her attorney and presiding judge Bradford DeMeo. Instead, DeMeo said Dunaway could face three years of probation and 300 hours of community service in leiu of six months in jail.
Dunaway's community service will include speaking to high school students about the dangers of distracted driving.
DeMeo is expected to make the final decision when Dunaway goes back in court Nov. 16. The judge's finding follows a of court hearings where Dunaway delayed entering in to her plea.
DeMeo said of Thursday's decision that he wanted to review a pre-sentencing report from the County Probation Department before making his decision.
The case’s lead prosecutor, Craig Brooks, said outside the courtroom that the plea arrangement’s implementation would also depend on out-of-court prosecutorial arguments and statements from the Murray family.
Jeff Murray, husband of Ling Murray and father to Calli Murray who has rallied against distracted driving since the accident, made a tearful statement to the court Thursday in which he urged Judge DeMeo to consider jail time.
“I understand the driver would have to do community service speaking to schools, and trying to educate other kids about not using a cell phone (while driving),” Jeff Murray said. “I believe it would be a better benefit for the driver to spend some time in jail (in conjunction with community service) … This would give her, I believe, better experience to help kids understand the depths of how far this can go if it happens.”
In a discussion outside the courtroom, Dunaway’s attorney, Chris Andrian, said he believed Dunaway wasn’t at fault for the accident, adding that he had been prepared to take the case to trial but for Dunaway’s insistence on a plea agreement.
“There was very good evidence that could have exonerated Kaitlyn, not least of which was the initial police report that indicated it was not her fault,” Andrian said. “I was ready to defend this case, but our client never wanted it to go to trial … She feels overwhelming responsibility, and feels it would be disrespectful to put this whole thing — and to put the (Murray) family – through a trial.”
Adrian said a trial would have involved placing the blame on Ling
"Kaitlyn didn't want to go there," he added. "I support her decision."
Andrian said multiple witnesses stated that Ling Murray and her daughter entered the crosswalk abruptly as Dunaway approached in her car, failing to give her adequate time to stop for her vehicle.
Just before the collision, one driver who had stopped in the left-turn lane on Snyder Lane preparing to turn onto Medical Center Drive realized Murray and her daughter would not be able to make it across the street without being hit by Dunaway's car, and she made eye contact with Ling Murray and said, "Don't," Andrian said.
That was the position taken by the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety in its investigation, but prosecutors later commissioned an outside investigator who concluded that the blame lied with Dunaway, Andrian said.
Brooks confirmed the findings of the two investigations.
“We didn’t agree with (Rohnert Park’s) investigation, so we went to another expert who also disagreed with it 100 percent,” he said.
Brooks said the possibility of a trial precluded him from discussing the specific findings of either investigation.
While Andrian said Thursday’s tentative plea deal would in all likelihood be confirmed on the Nov. 16 sentencing date, Brooks said there was a strong possibility that DeMeo would choose to withdraw it.
“The judge doesn’t make a trial decision until after he’s heard from everybody,” Brooks said. “If the judge finds something that he believes isn’t in the interest of justice, he could withdraw (the plea arrangement).”
Brooks said the argument prosecutors present to DeMeo will depend largely on how the Murray family members say they want to proceed.
“When this first happened, (Jeff Murray) couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a felony,” Brooks said. “The answer is that these facts don’t rise to a felony level. But his position is that he’d like Dunaway to be able to make a difference to stop all this cell phone mania that’s going on, and that it would help for her to spend some jail time.”
The Murray accident has ignited a converstion regionally about . In addition, the city commissioned a citywide months after the accident, where an outside consultant found that the crosswalk where the Murrays were hit was unsafe. It has since been repainted, but .
Gov. Jerry Brown, however, legislation that would have increased distracted driving violations.
Editor's note, posted Sunday, Sept. 25. It has come to Patch's attention that use of a previously published photo of Kaitlyn Dunaway is unauthorized. Although Rohnert Park Patch was given consent by KTVU — Bob Swofford, managing editor of the Press Democrat, contacted us this week and notified us it was their photo and declined to give us permission to use it. We were unaware of this.
An email sent May 19 to Patch from the news operations manager at KTVU stated: Here’s the photo—yours to use, as long as you credit KTVU. We bring this information forth in the interest of complete accuracy and transparency.