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Lake Park man in prison for vehicular homicide to get new trial

Jeremy Scott Nelson

A Lake Park man convicted of vehicular homicide will get a new trial --the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday that a judge erred by not allowing the jury to hear evidence that the crash victim was also drinking.

Jeremy Scott Nelson, 29, of Lake Park was driving a pickup truck that struck an all-terrain vehicle driven by Christopher Wade Carlson, 29, who was killed in the crash on Aug. 17, 2008.

"I think Jeremy Nelson is a good kid," said Nelson's appellate attorney, Jenneane Jansen of Minneapolis, "so I'm glad we had this rule."

Nelson was convicted of three counts of vehicular homicide in late March of 2010 and sentenced to 48 months in state prison, where he is now incarcerated.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court reversed Nelson's convictions and found that Becker County District Judge Peter Irvine abused his discretion by not allowing the jury to hear evidence that Carlson was drinking.

"The victim had been taken home earlier in the evening by friends concerned that he was too drunk to drive," Jansen said.

Carlson had a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 after the crash -- and the appeals court agreed with Jansen and Chief Appellate Public Defender, Suzanne M. Senecal-Hill, that evidence of the victim's drinking prior to the crash was relevant.

"It was unfair to permit the jury to consider how appellant's decisions and conduct were affected by his consumption of alcohol without permitting the jury to consider how alcohol made a similar impact on Carlson," the judges wrote.

"The thing that struck me was the word 'unfair," Jansen said. The appeals court doesn't use that word very often in its rulings, she said.

The appeals court determined that both Nelson and Carlson had behaved negligently prior to the crash.

Evidence at trial showed Nelson was under the influence of alcohol and was speeding when he drove into a ditch on County Road 1 near Lake Park, just before he hit Carlson's ATV.

But the judges said Carlson had also been driving his ATV irresponsibly on the night of the accident -- traveling on a highway without lights or a side-view mirror. And they said he drove into the ditch and veered in front of Nelson just before the pickup truck hit the ATV from behind.

The appeals panel also found that Irvine erred in his decision on jury instructions, specifically on not including instructions on the legal definition of "causation."

The state is required to prove that Nelson's conduct played a substantial role in causing Carlson's death.

But because Carlson swerved into Nelson's path, the victim's negligence could have been a superseding cause, the appeals panel said.

"The appeals court was concerned that the jury was not allowed to consider that the victim was responsible for the accident," Jansen said.

"I think it was the right ruling," she added. "The district court did make a couple of errors that affected the outcome of the case in the first place."

The state now has 30 days to ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to take review of the case. It can choose to accept or not at its discretion.

In the meantime, Nelson will remain in prison, awaiting a new trial or whatever other action the state opts to take.