May 27, 2011 in City

Mother cleared in crash fatal to baby

By The Spokesman-Review

A vehicular homicide charge was dismissed Thursday against a Post Falls mother whose daughter was fatally injured five years ago while riding in an improperly installed car seat.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen agreed with defense arguments that 26-year-old Eileen C. Jensen’s failure to correctly use the car seat was tragic but not criminally negligent, ending a legal case that brought widespread public attention to car seat safety issues.

“I think this young lady needs to get on with her life,” said Jensen’s public defender, Anna Nordtvedt, who handled the case with public defender Jill Gannon-Nagle. “She’s really been through a lot.”

The lawyers argued that prosecutors lacked evidence to support their claim that Jensen was criminally negligent when she rear-ended a car in north Spokane while her 3-month-old daughter, Chloe, was in a loosely fitted, forward-facing car seat in her Honda Accord’s front passenger seat.

The charge can be filed again if prosecutors find new evidence, which lawyers said is unlikely in a 5-year-old case.

Jensen was southbound on North Freya Street in Spokane on March 22, 2006, when she rear-ended a minivan that was stopped at Front Avenue, causing her Honda’s airbags to deploy. Chloe Jensen suffered head trauma from the passenger airbag and died 11 months later. Witnesses reported Jensen driving in an “aggressive” and “reckless” manner at about 5 mph over the 35 mph speed limit and quickly changing lanes, according to a police report.

Jensen was issued two infractions at the scene of the crash for second-degree negligent driving and failure to use required child restraints. But police reopened their investigation when Chloe died.

Jensen told police she normally drove with Chloe in the right front seat and that the airbag “just wasn’t something I was thinking of.” She told police she was tired, which may have contributed to her “blacking out” and causing the crash.

Nordtvedt said the facts surrounding what happened remained unchanged when police reopened the investigation.

“There really wasn’t more than ordinary negligence,” Nordtvedt said. “The child passed away, but the events themselves hadn’t changed.”

Washington law calls for all children under 13 to sit in a vehicle’s rear seat when practical, and the Spokane Police Department regularly hosts car seat safety checks to educate parents about proper installation.

The owner’s manual for Jensen’s Honda warned that children who weren’t properly restrained could be seriously injured or killed and specified that airbags can be particularly deadly.

In court documents objecting to the dismissal request, Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Mary Ann Brady said Jensen’s disregard for the car seat’s safety instructions “demonstrates a disregard for Chloe Jensen’s safety.”

“The defendant’s actions were not only the proximate cause of the injuries, they were the only cause of the injuries that led to Chloe Jensen’s death,” Brady wrote.

Brady called the case “difficult” Thursday but said she still believes a crime was committed.

Jensen was charged with felony vehicular homicide in February 2009. Supporters packed the courthouse for her arraignment and wore shirts that said “Eileen and her family have suffered enough” on the front and “Drop the charges” on the back.

Jensen was represented pro bono by John Clark, but her case was transferred to the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office when Clark died of cancer in October.

Jensen could not be reached for comment Thursday. Nordtvedt said Jensen is a stay-at-home mother who’s trying to move on.

“It’s been pretty hard on her,” Nordtvedt said. “She lost her baby.”

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