A 27-year-old Columbia woman won’t face a second trial in the death of a man she slammed into while driving her SUV the wrong way on Interstate 70 more than four years ago.
Kelli Smith on Monday entered an Alford plea on one count of careless and imprudent driving, a misdemeanor, one week before her second involuntary manslaughter trial was set to begin. In such a plea, the defendant doesn’t admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction.
“We were ready to go to retrial,” said defense attorney Jennifer Bukowsky, who thinks Smith was drugged and assaulted before the collision that killed Thomas D. Sullivan II, 35. “But it’s always a risk to go to trial ... . Anything could happen. ... It’s unfortunate because I think she’s a victim, too.”
Because of the plea, Smith won’t have a felony on her record or go to prison. She received a 270-day suspended sentence in the Montgomery County Jail and was placed on two years’ probation. She will spend 30 days in jail.
Never miss a local story.
Monday’s plea ended a case that raised questions about date rape drugs around a college campus; about how thoroughly Missouri Highway Patrol troopers investigated a possible sexual assault hours before the crash; and about how the patrol stored Smith’s blood before it was tested.
Earlier this month, a toxicologist testifying for the state said in a deposition that he didn’t find the blood sample reliable.
Several members of Sullivan’s family, including his father, spoke out against Smith during a hearing Monday. Some told the judge they didn’t agree with the misdemeanor charge and didn’t buy claims that she was drugged and sexually assaulted hours before the I-70 wreck.
“There is one good thing that will happen,” said Thomas Sullivan Sr., according to The Columbia Daily Tribune. “That I will no longer have to listen to the BS in this trial, and I will never have to think of Kelli Smith again.”
Montgomery County Prosecutor Nathan Carroz issued a statement saying the plea wasn’t “the ideal outcome in a case with such severe and tragic results.” But it was necessary, he said.
“As the case progressed, changes in the law and application of the law became hurdles that made prosecution of this matter increasingly more difficult,” Carroz wrote. “As an immediate result thereof, and in an effort to provide some closure for the victim’s family, this disposition was reached. I sincerely commend Mr. Sullivan’s family for their assistance and vigilance in seeking justice for Mr. Sullivan’s death.”
The Star detailed Smith’s case earlier this year. She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in December 2014. A year later, a court of appeals threw out that conviction, saying jurors hadn’t received proper instructions on Smith’s blood-alcohol content.
Smith was driving her yellow Nissan SUV the wrong way on Interstate 70 in the early morning hours of Feb. 25, 2012, when the crash occurred about 40 miles east of Columbia. She was driving west in the eastbound lanes. Sullivan was traveling from Kansas City to St. Louis to see his two young boys.
When rescue crews found Smith, she was naked from the waist down. One of her tan high-heel shoes was missing, along with her underwear and cellphone.
Smith suffered a traumatic brain injury that night and has no memory of the crash or the two or three hours before it. She remembers only fragments from that night.
She can recall putting her drink down on the table inside a Columbia bar before she went outside to a smoking area. She remembers coming back in and picking it up. Beyond that, she can’t recall what happened.
Medical personnel found bruises on her inner thighs and extensive bruising and damage to her cervix, both signs of a possible sexual assault. Her father later noticed what appeared to be thumbprint bruises on her wrists.
Yet in the first trial, a corporal with the Highway Patrol’s Division of Drug and Crime Control told jurors he gave the allegations of sexual assault “a look.”
The blood garnered the most scrutiny at her trial and appeal. It was drawn more than 7 1/2 hours after the wreck. Testimony at the trial revealed that the vial of blood wasn’t refrigerated for 10 days; an expert for the defense testified the delay could lead to fermentation and a misleading alcohol content.
The blood stayed in the trooper’s car for two days and then was kept in a patrol office for eight days before going to the crime lab.
The test showed her blood-alcohol content was 0.085 percent. The legal limit in Missouri is 0.08 percent.
After the deposition of the state’s toxicology witness, Bukowsky filed a motion last week to exclude the blood-alcohol result at the second trial.
“I cannot support the blood testing,” the toxicologist said during deposition, according to the motion. “You see, I have integrity, I really do. ... I’ve put a lot of people away, but I don’t like shooting at things in the bushes.”
Capt. John Hotz, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol, said he couldn’t comment on the blood collection or on Monday’s plea. “We’d have to refer you to the prosecutor on that,” he said.
One juror from Smith’s 2014 trial was happy with Monday’s plea. Gloria Langenecker has been vocal in her support of Smith and has said she believed something “horrible” happened that caused her to be disoriented and head the wrong way on I-70.
“I’m super glad she doesn’t have to go to prison,” said Langenecker, who planned to be at Smith’s second trial. “I think it’s fantastic that she can get that done and not have to go through it all again.”
Smith will begin serving her 30-day jail sentence on Dec. 18. She’s grateful to move on with her life, Bukowsky said, and grateful she won’t have to go through another trial revisiting what happened in February 2012.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened to Kelli Smith that night,” Bukowsky said. “But this case has raised awareness on predator drug use and for people to be careful. Don’t just have a sober ride, but have a sober friend with you to watch over you.”