A Hardin man who questioned whether he was the driver will spend five years on federal probation for a drunken driving crash on the Crow Reservation that killed a passenger and injured two other passengers.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters on Thursday sentenced Carl Chester Alden, Jr., 23, to the maximum probationary term for his guilty plea to involuntary manslaughter. It was a significant break from a guideline range that called for between 41 months and 51 months in prison.
Alden earlier tried to withdraw his plea saying he did know if he was the driver and didn’t remember the crash.
He also claimed recently discovered evidence showed it was possible he was not the driver, but the judge denied his request.
Watters called such cases “a tragedy all the way around” and said that drinking and driving on the reservation seems to be accepted behavior. There is “just no consequence when it comes to the culture” on the reservations regarding drunken driving, she said.
Tribal elders don’t “look down on you for that behavior,” at least not to the extent that it makes an impact, she told Alden.
Watters also said courts are trying to send the message through sentences that drunken driving will not be tolerated but the message is not being received.
Alden was not the typical defendant, Watters continued. She said he had complied with conditions of his release while the case was pending, provided for his family and had family and community support.
Alden, however, had a criminal record of partner or family member assault involving his wife and tribal convictions, all of which were related to alcohol use, she said.
Watters warned Alden that she could impose a stiffer sentence if he violated his probation. “I won’t be so forgiving the next time. I believe this is the appropriate sentence,” she said.
Alden’s defense attorney, Paula Saye, sought probation, submitted more than 30 letters of support written mostly by family members, and called four relatives, including Alden’s wife, to testify on his behalf.
Alden asked for leniency and a second chance. “I don’t recall anything. I’m not a bad person,” he said. “Not knowing, it drives me crazy,” he added.
Prosecutor Lori Suek recommended the maximum sentence of four years and three months. “This crime resulted in the loss of life and serious injury to individuals,” she said.
“We take a harsh position regarding Mr. Alden,” Suek said.
The government, Suek said, believes the court can deter others from drinking and driving through sentences that signal, “there will be a stiff penalty to pay” for such conduct.
The guideline range of 41 to 51 months was longer than the initial range because the judge followed a prosecution request to deny Alden credit for accepting responsibility after he tried to withdraw his guilty plea.
Alden earlier admitted he had lied under oath when he told a previous judge he was not pressured into pleading guilty and was satisfied with his first attorney.
Alden pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the death of a passenger, Stephen Old Elk, 23, of Crow Agency, in a wreck on Dec. 17, 2012. Alden admitted he had been drinking alcohol before the crash, said he did not remember the crash or driving but told investigators he could have been driving.
The wreck happened at about 9 a.m. at the Third Street exit off of Interstate 90 at Hardin, just inside the Crow Reservation.
According to the Montana Highway Patrol, the 1996 Ford pickup crashed down a 60-foot embankment.
One of the injured passengers was a 15-year-old. Alden had two passengers in the front seat and one passenger in a rear seat, prosecutors said.
Alden was pinned under the steering wheel and two surviving passengers identified Alden as the driver, the prosecution said. A test three hours after the wreck showed Alden’s blood alcohol concentration was 0.155 percent, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.