David Lee is deep in debt.
"I tapped out all of my retirement; my grandmother tapped out her retirement," says the 26-year-old soldier. "Sold two family heirlooms, sold a couple of antiques and had to get three or four loans. So my credit is shot right now, and I have no money."
On the plus side, he won't be going to prison.
On March 6, 2011, Lee went out drinking with his two buddies, Adam Sheffler and Robert O'Donnell. The night started downtown, then the guys moved on to Copperhead Road Honkey Tonk Saloon.
Lee says he was the designated driver. When it was decided to end the night at a friend's house, he drove there. Then he started drinking.
"But I told them, if I start drinking, we're staying there," he remembers. "And I got pretty hammered." From there, he says, "I fell asleep on the couch. And I woke up in the hospital."
Lee spent a day and a half in a medically induced coma as both of his hips were repositioned, an excruciating ordeal. Due to atrophy, one of his legs is now three inches shorter, and he walks with a limp.
He doesn't remember the accident, but according to his attorney, Steve Rodemer, it happened when Lee's truck was traveling southbound on Centennial Boulevard, between Garden of the Gods Road and Fillmore Street, and hit a concrete barrier at 70 miles per hour. It flipped end over end.
Sheffler was found dead in the passenger seat. O'Donnell was also seriously hurt, Rodemer says, and found in the driver's seat. Lee was in the back seat.
Yet Lee was the one who would be charged with two counts of vehicular homicide and two counts of vehicular assault, all felonies, along with DUI and reckless driving charges. He was looking at over a decade in prison.
Rodemer still doesn't understand it. Granted, the truck belonged to Lee. And his DNA was on the lone airbag, which deployed in the driver's seat.
But O'Donnell's DNA was also on the bag. And Lee's DNA was the only DNA in the back of the vehicle. (Rodemer says Lee's DNA made it up front to the airbag because emergency medics pulled him out of the truck that way.)
Plus, while Lee had only suffered lower-body injuries, O'Donnell had significant head lacerations, a broken clavicle, injuries to his elbow, and abrasions consistent with airbag burns, according to Rodemer.
Lee says that he and O'Donnell, his former roommate, haven't spoken "more than six words" since Lee was charged. (The Indy was unable to reach O'Donnell for this story.) But neither Lee nor Rodemer is claiming that O'Donnell must have been the driver; in an accident of this intensity, they know it can be difficult to piece together what happened.
"There is some dispute, my experts say," says Rodemer. "The guy in the passenger seat [Sheffler] could have been driving."
As for Lee, though? A local jury returned a "not guilty" verdict in a half-hour, says his attorney.
"I've never seen that happen in a vehicular homicide case, where there were three experts that testified over the course of five days," says Rodemer, a former DUI prosecutor in the 4th Judicial District.
According to Lee Richards, spokeswoman for the DA's office, the prosecutors stand by their filing decision, though she won't go into detail. O'Donnell won't be charged, she says, because the office lacks sufficient evidence.
Lee spent $40,000 to defend himself — half on Rodemer, and half on his experts.
"This isn't right," Rodemer says. "It isn't fair for this kid to pay $40,000 to defend a case that he never should have had to, when a little common sense could have prevented this whole thing."
Rodemer has filed a notice of government claim, and is exploring ways to recoup some of this cost. However, he says, "there's no mechanism for [Lee] to recover that."
At the federal level, a judge can order the prosecutor to pay the court costs if "the court finds that the position of the United States was 'vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith.'" There is no state equivalent to that federal law, according to Dan Schoen, the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.
"There are a lot of protections given to [state] prosecutors," Schoen explains. "If it's misconduct, [the protection is] not there, but if you make a good-faith error, or just can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt your case, it's a very high bar ... and intentionally so."
Here's how Lee sees it: "If I had lost, I would have had to pay all their stuff. I got to find a way to get that money back."
And he's not likely to be rolling in dough anytime soon. Once he gets his honorable discharge from the Army, Lee says, he has a job lined up on a horse ranch in Delaware.
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