Drunk driver sentenced in Wadena County fatal crash
WADENA -- His family wept and talked about a funny young man who lit up family gatherings with his humor, but expressed anger and said they felt no justice that a plea bargain did nothing to bring back Michael Kern.
The defendant, Nathan Roth, also had many supporters in the courtroom, and while he expressed remorse for the traffic crash that killed Kern, his attorney said the facts of the case simply didn't show that Roth could have done anything to prevent Kern's death.
Emotions poured out in the Wadena County courtroom as Roth was sentenced to serve 180 days of a 365-day jail sentence in Wadena County jail, then the remainder on electronic home monitoring. Roth entered an Alford plea to the charge of criminal vehicular homicide, meaning he does not plead guilty nor admit guilt, and can have the charge expunged from his record by following the court's sentence. The sentence was actually executed on a DWI charge, not on the homicide charge.
Everyone agreed that around 3 a.m. on Nov. 25, 2006, both Roth, 25 at the time, and Kern, 21, were headed home from parties and Roth's vehicle struck Kern, killing him. Defense attorney Steve Meshbesher said a former state trooper who was hired by the defense reconstructed the accident scene and concluded Roth -- or anyone else -- would likely not have been able to stop in time to avoid hitting Kern based on the conditions -- whether the driver was drunk or sober.
Another theory that had been floated about the case was that Kern was suicidal and had flung himself in front of the car. It's a charge the Kern family vehemently denied.
Jim Kern, Michael's father, took the stand during the sentencing phase of the hearing and said Michael had worked with him on the farm the day before, and all he could talk about was how he was excited for his unborn daughter to arrive, and how he was ready to go into the Army to start supporting his new family.
Jim Kern said it breaks his heart when Michael's daughter, who was born after his death, asks where her daddy is. Jim said the death has torn up his family.
"I'm so proud of my family. It took a chunk out of here," he said, clutching his heart.
Michael's brother, JJ (James) Kern, addressed Roth directly when his time on the stand came.
"You're not even crying, Nathan," he said angrily. "You drank. You drove. You hit somebody. You killed them."
Lori Kern, Michael's mother, said her son made the responsible choice that night after drinking too much -- he did not get behind the wheel, and instead started walking home.
"You, Nathan, chose to drink and drive that night," she said. "My son did not choose to die."
Michael's sister, Falon Kern, said her family should not have had to wait nearly three years after the accident to get justice.
"It didn't seem like that should take three years to solve," she said.
Meshbesher said the reason for the delay wasn't stalling on the part of the defense, it just took that long for the investigators to reconstruct the accident scene.
"That was the basic cause of the delay," Meshbesher said.
The attorney said it took that long for his side to get the facts prepared.
"Our explanation of the accident was done by science -- not by emotion," Meshbesher explained. "We're not here to rationalize a death. We're not here to explain a death."
Meshbesher said he was personally sorry for Kern's death, as was his client and his client's family.
When Roth took the stand, he gave a brief, apologetic statement: "I am sorry for my part in the events that led to the death of Michael Kern. My heart is full of remorse, and my eyes have been full of tears."
Judge Jay Carlson, before sentencing Roth, said he was moved by the love shown for Michael Kern by his family, and called the event "a community tragedy."
Meshbesher said he understands the Kern family's pain.
"I'm not disputing the tragedy," he said. "I can't do that."
"Bulls---," said JJ Kern as he headed for the courtroom exit. "No. Bulls---."
It's the same word Jim Kern used to describe the sentence when interviewed outside the courtroom when the hearing concluded. He said he felt there had been no justice for Michael, and said he never dreamed this would be the outcome of his son's death.
Roth hugged his family members and supporters after the hearing concluded, and went home to prepare to report to Wadena County jail, which he was ordered to do by 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11. If he has no issues with following the court's orders, he will be released for work release and will spend 185 days of the 365 day jail sentence on electronic home monitoring.