HELENA - Through the unwavering determination of an aggrieved mother, Montana has enacted what Pat Tucker calls "Cady's Law" in memory of her 11-year-old daughter, who was killed in a highway crash nearly seven years ago.
House Bill 628 passed the 150-member Legislature this year with only two dissenting votes. Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed it into law late last month.
The new law increases to three years, from the current one year, the statute of limitations for prosecutors to file careless or reckless driving charges when either results in a death. It also provides that a person's driver's license can be revoked after convictions of either crime.
Tucker, her family and friends worked with lobbyist Susan Good Giese to get the bill passed in memory of her only child. She called it "a small step for highway safety, but a monumental achievement for our family."
House Judiciary Chairman Ron Stoker, R-Darby, said the Judiciary Committee drafted a new bill after there were problems with Tucker's original one.
"Because of the 12-month statute of limitations and the backlog on the calendar of courts and the county attorney, time ran out," Stoker said. "It gives the county prosecutor greater time to sort out the evidence, get this before the judge and prosecute."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Gary Perry, R-Manhattan, agreed, saying, "Lengthening the statute of limitations is very key, very important."
"I really want to thank Montana," said Tucker, a former state resident who is now a technical writer in Idaho Falls. "It took me a long time to come around to that. I was so used to people just disregarding us, and by that I mean Cady. For the Legislature, it was a complete turnaround. People could not have been more gracious.
"The legislation, I think, is born of death," she said. "It's critical to turn that death into something good. That's the legacy of the person that's killed."
Tucker has been searching for justice and redemption since her daughter was killed.
In August 2002, on U.S. 83, about 10 miles north of Seeley Lake, a woman from northwestern Montana drove 10 feet over the center line and crashed into a car heading the other direction. The wreck killed Cady Tucker, a passenger in the other car, driven by a family friend.
"Highly intelligent Cady, a classical guitarist, track star, budding artist, brilliant reader, but more importantly a kind human being, took the brunt of the crash," Tucker told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Not only would Cady never play guitar again, but she would never get to start sixth grade."
The driver of the other car, who Tucker says had "severely uncontrolled diabetes," was never charged with a crime or given a traffic ticket, despite being found 100 percent responsible for the wreck.
Tucker told the Legislature that this driver had been warned a week before the crash that her diabetes "was in terrible control and needs to improve rapidly." Tucker said another driver reported seeing this woman's vehicle swerving down the roadway shortly before the crash.
"Not charging this woman with a single crime was beyond belief to me," she said.
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said he removed himself from the case because he was friends with Bob Cushman, a Tucker family friend who was driving the car in which Cady was riding. He assigned it to his then-chief deputy prosecutor, Karen Townsend, now retired.
"Pat Tucker in particular and Barb Tucker (her sister) and a whole bunch of people were very focused on having the driver of the car charged with negligent homicide," Van Valkenburg said. "Karen Townsend was very focused on charging negligent homicide."
Townsend went to Ford Motors to examine the "black box" for evidence that might implicate the driver as impaired and sought information about the other driver's diabetic condition, he said.
"All of that was for the purpose of seeing if she can charge (felony) negligent homicide," Van Valkenburg said.
Meanwhile, the one-year statute of limitations elapsed for charging the woman with misdemeanor careless driving.
Tucker criticized Missoula County prosecutors for letting the deadline slip.
"My answer is that Karen Townsend was very sincerely focused on trying to determine whether there was adequate evidence to charge negligent homicide," Van Valkenburg said. "In the course of that effort, a year went by trying to get evidence of that nature."
He added, "Pat feels that the system let her down. It was too late to charge careless driving, as if a $50 fine is going to get her justice for her daughter's death."
After her investigation concluded, Townsend, a longtime prosecutor, decided against filing negligent homicide charges.
"I am convinced after reviewing the evidence that could be presented at a trial that we would certainly be unable to meet our burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a charge of negligent homicide," Townsend wrote. "In fact, I do not believe that the evidence even amounts to a 'reasonable likelihood of conviction' which is the standard that I apply when deciding whether or not to file charges."
Upset, Tucker asked Van Valkenburg to reconsider charging the driver, conditional on whether the erratic driving could be substantiated.
Van Valkenburg instead referred the case to then-Attorney General Mike McGrath's office for review. Tucker objected because it initially went to John Connor, then the attorney general's chief special prosecutor and decades earlier a law partner of Van Valkenburg, and to Connor's chief deputy.
The attorney general's office also agreed that a negligent homicide charge wasn't warranted.
Unwilling to accept the decision, Tucker asked a Helena district judge to order McGrath to file a negligent homicide charge against the driver. District Judge Thomas Honzel, now retired, denied the request last year. She appealed that ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, which upheld Honzel 5-0.
Tucker next petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to hear the appeal. It denied the request last week, although Tucker vowed to seek a rehearing.
Later this month, Tucker will speak at the baccalaureate service for the graduating senior class in Idaho Falls that would have included Cady.
"I wanted to talk about the importance of taking advantage of every second of one's life and not taking anything for granted," Tucker said. "I thought the true story (of Cady) would be inspirational.
"I'm really hoping there can be inspiration. I think Cady will carry me through. I'm doing it for her."