Norton ( x )
BOULDER -- Gabe Nielsen's last choice was to do all he could to save his 2-year-old daughter and his sister as a drunk driver behind the wheel of a Ford pickup crossed the center line on Nelson Road on June 25 and smashed into Nielsen's car.
Boulder County prosecutor Ryan Brackley painted a picture of Nielsen's last moments on Friday as he sought the maximum sentence for the driver who struck Nielsen's car, Lisa Norton.
After hearing attorney's arguments and family and friends of both Nielsen and Norton speak, Boulder District Judge DD Mallard then sentenced the 33-year-old to 33 years in prison, followed by five years of parole.
Norton pleaded guilty in March to vehicular homicide, two counts of vehicular assault, leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence. Under the deal, prosecutors dismissed a first-degree murder charge, which is rare in a vehicular homicide case, and agreed that she would face between 20 and 36 years in prison. Brackley asked for 36, while Norton's defense attorney asked for 20 with credit for time served.
Standing at the court lectern wearing Boulder County Jail scrubs, Norton said she struggles with whether she should be allowed to live or see the light of day. She wept through much of the hearing.
"I am dearly sorry and I beg everyone's forgiveness," she said. Norton was two days into probation on another alcohol-related conviction at the time of the crash. The terms of that probation included abstaining from alcohol use.
According to reports, Gabriel Nielsen was driving his Nissan coupe west on Nelson Road at about 6:30 p.m. June 25 when Norton lost control of her eastbound Ford pickup and struck the Nissan. Police reported that Norton was fleeing from another collision at the time.
"If you go to that scene today ... you'll still see the impression of his car in the embankment where he lay dead and his sister and his daughter lay wounded," Brackley said.
He added that investigators determined that Nielsen tried to avoid the collision by slowing to only 11 mph on the roadway and trying to get the car out of the path of Norton's truck. Norton fled the scene, jumped into Clover Basin Reservoir and tried to swim away to escape police, according to police reports. Boaters in the reservoir fished her out of the water and turned her over to police.
During a preliminary hearing, a Boulder County District Attorney's Office investigator testified that the boaters who pulled Norton from the reservoir said she begged them not to turn her over to police and jumped back into the water when one of the boaters tried to alert police on the shore that they had her in the boat. The investigator also testified that once Norton was on the dock, she was told someone died in the wreck and asked, "Who did I kill?"
During an ambulance ride, she told the police officer riding with her that bad things happen when she drinks and it is why she doesn't have a boyfriend, the investigator said.
Family and friends of both Nelson and Norton who spoke or submitted letters to the court characterized Norton's behavior that day as "callous," having "no regard for human life," and displaying no conscience. Mallard said she considered it aggravating in terms of the sentence.
Norton said she had been self-absorbed and had not dealt with an alcohol problem. While jailed she has received treatment for alcohol treatment and has earned 14 certificates for completing various programs. The court received 26 letters of support for Norton and her efforts. Her father told Mallard that his side of the family struggles with alcoholism and he does not know when his daughter developed the problem.
"We are all here for Lisa," he said. "We, as a family, can only pray that the grief and sorrow will be lifted from the hearts of the Nielsens."
Mitch Nielsen, Gabriel Nielsen's father, said his son was a gentle giant, doting father, and loving husband who was just two months from graduating from the University of Colorado with a geology degree, which was awarded posthumously. He said the one comfort he has is that he and his son often hugged and told one another of their love for each other. He said he had no unfinished business in the relationship.
"How do I put into words the most stunning grief I have ever experienced in my life?" he said during his comments.
He also addressed his feelings for Norton. "Lisa, for my sake and for yours, I forgive you. I cannot afford to engrave my heart with bitterness," he said.
Mallard said Norton's work in jail, her obvious remorse, and acceptance of responsibility are mitigating factors, but said the case itself was aggravated and unlike any other DUI-related vehicular homicide that could be used for comparison. The judge noted that she saw love and pain in the courtroom during the hearing.
"I wish there was something I could do to lessen your pain, but that is not my job," she said. "My job is to craft a fair and just sentence."
Pierrette J. Shields can be reached at 303-684-5273 or