New trial ordered in ’09 DUI deaths of two Greenwich women

Sandra Jacobson

Sandra Jacobson

A new trial has been ordered in Colorado for the drunk driver who killed two Greenwich women in 2009.

Sandra Jacobson, 45, of Centennial, Colo., was convicted in 2010 of charges including two counts of vehicular homicide, two counts of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death and driving under the influence. Ms. Jacobson was behind the wheel on Jan. 28, 2009, when she struck a taxi taking Riverside residents and local librarians Kathy Krasniewicz and Kate McClelland to Denver International Airport after they had attended a national conference She was sentenced to 36 years in prison for this but now could be looking at freedom.

Prosecutors in the case said that Ms. Jacobson was driving 85 mph at the time of the accident and that she had so much alcohol in her system that she was still drunk when she was found by police hours later. At trial, it was introduced into evidence that her blood alcohol content at the time of her arrest was 0.16, twice the legal driving limit, and that this indicated the level at the time of the accident was 0.274. Ms. Jacobson had previously pled guilty to driving under the influence in Colorado in 2006 and her license had been suspended at the time of the accident.

But now she is getting a new trial, as the Colorado Court of Appeals has set aside her conviction. In her appeal, Ms. Jacobson contended that the original trial judge erred when he did not poll members of the jury to see if they had been exposed to publicity about the case during the trial that could potentially have prejudiced them against her. On the fourth day of the trial, a local news station had aired a report about the case mentioning Ms. Jacobson’s previous DUI conviction as well as other criminal transgressions.

The report was then posted to the channel’s news website. Ms. Jacobson’s attorney asked the judge to instruct jurors to avoid the broadcast online but the judge declined to do so, saying that previous instructions to ignore media reports were sufficient and telling them about this specific one would only tempt them to look, comparing it to “dangling a cookie under a two-year-old’s nose.” This was the ground the appellate court used to reverse the conviction.

“We conclude that the court abused its discretion when it declined to poll the jury, instead relying solely on its assumption that the jurors had followed repeated admonitions to avoid news reports,” the court’s decision states. “Because we also conclude that this error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, we reverse Jacobson’s convictions and remand the case for a new trial on all charges.”

The loss of the two longtime librarians, who were close friends and often traveled together, was deeply felt in the community. Both were beloved children’s librarians, and Ms. McClelland had been given a New York Times Librarian of the Year award in 2006 and had worked at Perrot Memorial Library in Old Greenwich for 29 years before retiring in 2007. Ms. Krasniewicz succeeded her in that position, and in 2010 part of the Greenwich Alliance for Education’s Storymobile was dedicated as “Kathy’s Corner” in her memory.

Ms. Krasniewicz’s daughter Erin told the Post that the reversal of the conviction “opens up painful emotional wounds” for her, her father and her two sisters. She said they had not received any information from prosecutors since Nov. 12 so they were just waiting for word. She added that her family was “always missing” her mother but it was always especially hard this time of year with the holidays coming.

“I feel nothing but grateful to the original judge and jury,” Erin Krasniewicz said. “My understanding is that the judge did not make a procedural mistake and that warning, but not polling, the jury is a common practice in trials receiving media attention. I understand why the appeal is going forward but it is also so disappointing. But I have full confidence that if this goes to retrial, the people of Colorado will make the right decision again.”

In the last communication with prosecutors, several potential options were listed, including asking the appeals court to reconsider its decision, or appealing to the Colorado Supreme Court. The possibility of a new trial is also on the table, as is a potential plea deal with Ms. Jacobson, but no decisions have yet been made. Erin Krasniewicz said she had known from the start of the original trial that, if convicted, Ms. Jacobson would want to appeal the verdict but that she didn’t expect this to be the ground that she was successful on.

“I didn’t see it coming in this way,” she said.

However, she pledged that, despite the emotional toll, the family was not going to stop pushing for justice.

“Sometimes it feels that this is never, ever, ever going to end, but that’s OK because to get this woman off the street and stop her from hurting someone else, I would do this again and again for the rest of our natural lives,” she said.

At the original trial, prosecutors painted a damning picture of Ms. Jacobson, citing witnesses who claimed that her pickup truck bounced off the taxi van like “bumper cars,” sending the taxi rolling over on the side of the road as Ms. Jacobson continued driving toward the airport’s cargo area where she had been sent to ship a dog. Prosecutors claimed that, hours after the accident, Ms. Jacobson was so intoxicated that she fell onto a desk at police headquarters when asked to stand on one leg during a sobriety test.

Police said they found a bottle of what they called “road pop” in her truck and described it as a mix of 99 proof banana schnapps and vitamin water. At trial Ms. Jacobson claimed that the bottle had been in her truck from the night before and that she had not been drinking before the accident, which she claimed she hadn’t know had happened. Instead, she told police that she had lost control of the vehicle when one of the six dogs in her pickup truck at the time had attempted to snatch Cheetos from her hand. She claimed she drank the mixture of water and schnapps only when she was at the airport.

Ms. Jacobson’s attorney at the time contended at trial that the accident was the responsibility of the taxi driver who had been working there for only six months and said that Ms. Krasniewicz and Ms. McClelland were killed because they were not wearing seat belts.

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