More than 10 years in prison. Or nothing at all.
Those are two possible outcomes facing a Kirtland Air Force Base airman after he fatally struck a woman with his car in Southeast Albuquerque earlier this year.
Airman 1st Class Calvin Cooper is charged with reckless operation of a vehicle and involuntary manslaughter in the March 23 death of Angelica Baca, 39.
On Thursday, Cooper, his family, and Baca’s family gathered in an on-base military courtroom for a hearing to determine whether there is probable cause for a court-martial, the military’s version of a criminal trial. A court-martial would expose Cooper to prison time. Other outcomes range from no action at all to administrative or nonjudicial options, such as a dishonorable discharge.
“I don’t want to get into the gory details here, but he hit her at such a speed that her death occurred immediately,” Staff Judge Advocate Capt. Steven McKevett said during the hearing. “I’m not saying that the accused is a bad person, or that this is a case that involves ruthlessness or evil intent, it’s not. What it is … is incredibly reckless decisions made on that day.”
For that reason, McKevett said, a court-martial is the “best way forward.”
Area Defense Counselor Capt. Robert Saulter countered that the defense would save much of its statement for a closing argument in the event of a trial. But he argued that the government, with “unlimited resources,” did not provide enough evidence to meet the probable cause burden.
The investigating officer, who presided over the hearing, is expected to finish his report in the coming weeks and deliver it to higher-ups who will determine whether the case warrants a court-martial.
Albuquerque police, who initially responded to the crash, say Cooper used the “center painted median” near Louisiana and Ross to pass a vehicle and struck Baca, who was standing in the median. Cooper then swerved across two lanes and crashed into the Rising Phoenix apartments. At the time of the crash, Cooper was with three fellow airmen: two 19-year-old men and a 22-year-old woman.
Soon after, the investigation was handed over to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations for possible prosecution.
During Thursday’s hearing, defense counselors and staff judge advocates submitted evidence in the case to the investigating officer, Maj. Joshua Nettinga, who will consider that evidence and make a determination of probable cause.
McKevett submitted the charging sheet and release of jurisdiction, more than 400 pages of investigation by the Air Force, with videos taken by surveillance cameras and bystanders of the collision “aftermath,” medical records of injured passengers and the accident reconstruction report.
Citing the investigative report, McKevett said Cooper traveled farther than a football field through the turn lane and median – at around 60 mph – before striking and killing Baca.
Saulter urged the investigating officer to consider potential lesser charges, versus involuntary manslaughter, and the possibility of contributory negligence since Baca was standing in a median “that was not a crosswalk.”
“When you hear government counsel describing what the road was like, and what he was doing and what it looked like, you simply don’t have that evidence in front of you,” Saulter said.
Saulter submitted Google images and a photo of the “road paintings” at Louisiana and Gibson, a memorandum from Cooper’s passengers – who were injured in the crash – and “relevant” Facebook posts from Baca’s profile in the days leading up to the crash.
“The purpose of offering this is to provide context of the potential state of mind of the person that was involved in the collision,” Saulter said. “… The defense position is that the state of mind goes to the potential contributory negligence issue.”
Despite the Google images and photos – and objections from defense counsel that the roadway has since changed – Nettinga insisted he go for a ride-along to see the surrounding area for himself.
“I have a sense of what the scene looks like … however, I believe it would be helpful to my determination if I could do a scene visit,” Nettinga said.
Before closing, Nettinga said he had eight days to finish the report.
“That puts us into Thanksgiving. My intention is to have this report completed before the holiday break,” he said. “So I’ve said it now on the record and committed myself to that.”
© 2019 the Albuquerque Journal
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