Surprise guilty plea

MH man accepts vehicular manslaughter charge in Erin Kinkel’s
By Lori Stuenkel

Gilroy – Scott Kinkel buried his face in his hands as Anthony Scott McDowell, the young man accused of vehicular manslaughter in the death of Kinkel’s 15-year-old daughter, said the word Kinkel had been waiting 11 months to hear: “Guilty.”

“It took him a long time, but he’s doing the right thing,” Kinkel said outside the courtroom. “He should have done it months ago.”

Inside the emotion-filled courtroom packed with more than 40 spectators, McDowell surprisingly pleaded guilty Monday to two charges in the death of Erin Nicole Kinkel last summer.

McDowell, 19, of Morgan Hill, entered the guilty pleas as his trial was set to start Monday morning. He is scheduled for sentencing Aug. 8 at 9am.

Shortly before McDowell’s appearance in court, Deputy District Attorney Amir Alem said no plea deal had been made. McDowell faces a maximum of one year in county jail for vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, a misdemeanor, and transporting a person in the bed of a motor vehicle, an infraction.

Wearing a navy blue suit with a royal blue tie, McDowell calmly told Superior Court Judge Susan Bernardini he understood the charges against him and that he was waiving his right to either a jury or court trial. He sat in front of a courtroom full of 20 of his own friends and family members sitting on the right side of the aisle, and even more Kinkel supporters on the left side of the aisle as he addressed the judge. He answered “yes” when asked if he understood that his driver’s license will be revoked for at least one year and that he could be forced to pay a maximum $10,000 to the victim’s restitution fund.

Scott and Miki – Erin Kinkel’s mother – and others cried quietly during the proceeding.

When Judge Bernardini formally read through the first charge against him – misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter – the Kinkels visibly sobbed as she said “resulting in the death of Erin Nicole Kinkel.” Miki Kinkel drooped in her seat and Scott Kinkel hid his face in his hands as McDowell replied to the judge: “Guilty.”

“It totally surprised me, and so I was enormously relieved,” Dina Campeau, a friend of the Kinkels who has attended each court date, said in an interview. “I was very glad because I didn’t think that family could survive a trial.”

Afterward, outside court, McDowell shared hugs and cried with his supporters, but his San Jose attorney, Ingo Brauer, said he was not prepared to speak to the press.

“We did an extensive investigation” that indicated McDowell was at fault, Brauer said when asked why the guilty plea came 11 months after the accident. “(McDowell) feels very badly for the loss of life. He feels very badly for the Kinkel family. He lost a dear friend. … He would like to spare the family from a painful and emotional trial.”

Brauer shared tears with Scott Kinkel when Kinkel expressed his relief at McDowell’s plea.

The Kinkels said they were thankful to be spared the pain of a criminal trial.

“Finally, I can start healing,” an emotional Scott Kinkel said. “We didn’t want to have to face a trial, especially with the one-year anniversary (of Erin Kinkel’s death) coming up.”

Kinkel was killed on Aug. 1, 2004. She and a friend were riding unrestrained in the bed of McDowell’s pick-up truck as he drove on curvy Redwood Retreat Road about 1am. When rounding a turn in the road, McDowell went off the road and struck a tree, ejecting Kinkel onto the pavement.

Since the crash, the Kinkels have said repeatedly they want an apology from McDowell. Without one, they have vowed to pursue the harshest punishment allowable. Scott Kinkel was instead full of relief and sympathy for McDowell, who was 18 years old at the time of the accident.

“I never wanted to sue Tony’s family civilly, but if they put us through the trial, I had my lawyers write up a lawsuit,” he said. “Since Tony took responsibility in the criminal trial, you have my word that there will not be a civil suit.”

Brauer said he advised McDowell not to speak to the Kinkels about the crash.

“I would hope that fact not be held against him in the future,” he said.

McDowell will be formally sentenced Aug. 8, and could face jail time, community service, fines, and a revoked driver’s license.

“I trust this judge completely,” Brauer said. “She is one of the best judges we have in this court system.”

Bernardini will consider a report the county probation department will compile this month, following interviews with McDowell. She also will hear from all the parties involved in the case, including the Kinkels and McDowell’s family.

Brauer said his client wants to perform community service and is already working to see positive results from the crash.

He is trying to get the county to lower the speed limit on Redwood Retreat Road from 55 miles per hour, and allow him to create a memorial for Erin Kinkel at the site of the crash.

McDowell also wants to speak to teen drivers about safety, Brauer said. Scott Kinkel and a few local high school students for months have been speaking to teen-agers for that same reason.

“I get up in front of teens and I talk about the poor choices they all made,” Scott Kinkel said. “Unfortunately for Tony, he’s the one that bears the legal responsibility, as well as the moral responsibility. … I do respect and appreciate Tony’s taking responsibility and not putting us through the pain and suffering of a trial.”

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