By Francis Davis- The Montana Standard
VIRGINIA CITY — A Utah man accused of vehicular homicide while under the influence in a crash that resulted in the death of his fiancé accepted a plea bargain and received probation Wednesday in Virginia City District Court.
The plea agreement came minutes after Louis Schardine, 29, took the stand in his own defense in an emotional testimony that left some of the jurors visibly upset. Schardine claimed he was not driving at the time of the accident, though he still felt responsible for his fiance’s death.
In exchange for the state dropping the vehicular homicide charge, Schardine pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor.
The plea came nearly three years after an accident that occurred during the early morning of Aug. 14, 2010, on Highway 287 about three miles south of Ennis.
The state alleged Schardine drove a Ford F-350 pickup truck off the road in a single-vehicle accident that killed Sarah Nicole Fleming, 22. The couple was engaged and living in Ennis at the time of the accident.
Schardine, however, claimed from the start of the investigation that he was not behind the wheel that night. In Wednesday’s testimony, he said he was raised not to drink and drive, and that Fleming had come to pick him up that evening from the bar.
The truck was Sarah’s truck, Schardine said, though it was registered to Fleming’s parents, who were in court on Wednesday.
Schardine said his last memory before the crash was getting into the passenger’s seat of the truck and leaning back as Fleming drove out of Ennis.
“I got in the passenger’s seat,” Schardine said. “And I remember being in the passenger’s seat and I remember driving away, and I remember waking up in the hospital. I would have known if I was driving, and I wasn’t driving.”
Witnesses corroborated Schardine’s account that he was a passenger in the truck as it pulled out of Ennis, but Madison County Attorney Chris Christensen suggested in his opening statement that the couple had switched drivers before the crash.
Christensen said the position the bodies were found in the crashed vehicle, as well as DNA and toxicology evidence proved Schardine was driving at the time of the accident. Schardine’s blood alcohol count at the time of the accident was .17 percent. Fleming’s was .19 percent. Schardine also tested positive for THC, the mind-altering chemical in marijuana.
Christensen said a big factor in the plea agreement was Fleming’s family’s feelings about the deal.
“The big decision in this case was the fact that the victim’s family was supportive of the result,” Christensen said.
Before the plea deal, a cowboy boot found wedged under the brake pedal was central to the state’s case against Schardine. On Wedesday, Schardine explained that the boots he was wearing that night were his roommate’s boots and they were at least a size too big for his feet.
When questioned by his attorney Herman “Chuck” Watson, Schardine said the boot could have become wedged under the brake pedal when he was extracted from the vehicle after the crash, though he had no memory of that happening.
With Schardine on the stand, Watson played a tape from the day of the accident. On the tape, Schardine was told Fleming had died, and he wept and moaned for over 10 minutes. The courtroom listened in silence to Schardine’s grief, while Schardine wiped away tears as he sat listening at the witness stand.
The tape had a visible effect on the jury, which, including the alternate, was composed of 11 women and two men. A few jurors wiped away tears as the tape played.
Watson played the tape to put into context the comments that Schardine had made after he heard the news of Fleming’s death.
Those comments included, “I killed her.”
In court on Wednesday, Schardine explained that he had said that because he felt responsible because Fleming had come to the bar to pick him up.
“She picked me up that night,” Schardine said. “We both had been drinking, and I knew she had been drinking. And I let her drive.”
Read the story on The Montana Standard.