David William Fincher rolled the dice when he turned down a plea offer from the Deschutes County District Attorney’s office, opting instead for a 12-person jury trial.
On Wednesday, he learned he lost. The decision could mean he spends up to 20 years in prison under Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law for violent crimes.
Fincher was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter, a Measure 11 offense, in Deschutes County Circuit Court for showing “extreme indifference” to the value of human life, namely, the life of Marley Elizabeth Peterson, 2, whom he killed in a drunken driving collision on the morning of Sept. 11, 2016.
“Every minute he spends behind bars, he earned,” said Marley’s mother, Sarah Peterson, after the verdict was read.
Authorities said Fincher had a blood-alcohol level of between 0.22 and 0.25 the morning he crashed into two other vehicles. The legal limit is 0.08.
Fincher was driving his black 2000 Toyota Tundra east on U.S. Highway 20 near Couch Market Road when he lost control negotiating a corner and crossed over the center line into an oncoming 2014 Volkswagen Jetta driven by Sarah Peterson. He also struck a 2016 Dodge Charger driven by Alexander Perkins of Bend.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel would not discuss the plea deal offered to Fincher prior to sentencing, which is scheduled for March 5.
Jurors could have potentially returned a guilty verdict for lesser charges — second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, both of which carry lighter sentences.
The jury also found Fincher guilty of five counts of third-degree assault — one for each person (aside from Marley) he injured in the head-on collision. Jurors could have found him guilty of the lesser offense of fourth-degree assault, but again they felt he acted with extreme indifference to the value of human life.
“We’re relieved,” said Perkins, who was riding with his wife and mother-in-law. Perkins and his wife, Ashley, said though they’ve recovered physically, there is still pain mentally.
“It’s always a little nerve-wracking every time we drive by the crash site,” Alexander Perkins said.
Additionally, the jury returned guilty verdicts for eight of 11 counts of reckless endangerment. Those charges were supported by dash-cam evidence recorded by Fincher himself. He had installed the camera the day before. He’d developed an interest in capturing his rides during his job as a long-haul trucker.
Fincher took the witness stand the day before, testifying the weekend in question he’d decided to go camping in Central Oregon. He purchased three bottles of liquor on his way.
He claims to remember little of the one-hour, 40-minute drive from the campsite that morning. Jurors watched the entire dash-cam video, which appeared to show his driving getting worse until he finally drove off the road, then over-corrected, slamming into Peterson’s Jetta.
On Wednesday, Fincher was also found guilty of driving under the influence of intoxicants.
That morning saw the closing arguments of the defense and prosecution and a lengthy recitation of the jury instructions by Judge A. Michael Adler. In the end, though, the jury deliberated on the 18 counts for a little over an hour.
“He’s not the devil,” juror Tim Schmidt said of Fincher. “He just made a horrible decision and it cost the life of a little girl, and devastated a family.”
Jurors were thanked as they left the courthouse by relatives and friends of the Petersons, who wore flowers of Marley’s favorite color: pink. Among them was Marley’s nanny, Missy Hittlet, and her husband.
“She was so joyful,” Hittlet said of the girl. “She was the most joyful, happy 2-year-old you’ve ever met.”
Hittlet said she grieves for 8-year-old Sylus Peterson, who was seated next to his sister when she was killed.
“He loved Marley,” Hittlet said. “He would say his best friend was his little sister.”
Sylus still experiences nerve pain from the crash, Hittlet said.
Sarah Peterson testified that on the morning of the collision they were heading for the Sisters Folk Festival. It was at Marley’s insistence, she said. “She wanted to go dancing.”
Darcelle Chiesa hugged other jurors on their way outside. She said she hopes she never serves on another jury.
“It was hard,” said Chiesa, one of two alternates on the jury. “It was very difficult seeing people living through something like this.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org