Earlier this year, teenager Justine Winter was sentenced to a maximum of 30 years in prison for causing a car accident that killed a pregnant woman and her son. But the crash, which happened more than two years ago in the town of Kalispell in northwestern Montana, and the controversial court case that followed still provoke strong emotions in the community.
Minutes before the accident on Flathead Valley's Highway 93, Winter sent a series of text messages to her boyfriend saying she planned to kill herself by wrecking her car. Prosecutors would later successfully argue that the messages helped prove that Winter intentionally drove her car into oncoming traffic, killing 35-year-old hairstylist Erin Thompson, who was four months pregnant, and her 13-year-old son, Caden Odell. Flathead County attorney Ed Corrigan told "20/20", "As we considered the text messages a little closer, it became inescapable … that this was a knowing act on [Winter's] part, that she purposely crossed the center line [of the highway]." Read more about the crash and Justine Winter's trial here.
Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher said the case tore apart the small community as people sided with the Winters or the family of Erin Thompson and Caden.
"There was empathy on all sides of the board," said Fisher. Some feel the teenager should not have been charged with deliberate homicide – the highest available charge – in the first place.
"There's a great divide in the community about what is justice in this case," Fisher added. "She is still just 18 years old."
Comments posted as recently as this summer to the website of a local newspaper, The Daily Inter Lake, include opinions that both condemn and defend Winter, who was 16 at the time of the crash. Some commenters suggested that Winter deserved the death penalty, while others urged compassion, saying, "she was just a kid."
Winter, who survived serious injuries, says she does not remember what happened the night of the accident and cannot take responsibility for the deaths that resulted. The case has remained in the headlines as Winter pursues an appeal; her lawyer filed a notice of appeal to the Montana Supreme Court last month. Meanwhile, as Winter maintains her innocence, the family of Erin Thompson and Caden are still waiting for an apology from Winter – one they say was conspicuously missing when Winter addressed the family during her sentencing in June.
'You Killed My Boy': Families Give Emotional Statements in Court
Both sides were given the opportunity to give statements to one another in court. Caden's father, Craig Odell, delivered a forceful and emotional statement. "Caden was, and you will never know, how incredible he was. And you took him. You did it. And you need to own it. You killed my boy."
Jason Thompson, Erin's husband of almost three years and Caden's stepfather, also spoke directly to Winter.
"The most important thing is to apologize. Show concern for what you have done … and try to make amends. But have you ever once … looked us in the eye and shown, and expressed even the slightest bit of sincere sorrow for everything that we've been through? We've waited and waited and waited for that."
In a written statement to the court, Winter said that she had wanted to express sorrow to Erin and Caden's family in the two years since the accident, but had been advised by her attorneys not to. When she finally took the stand at her sentencing hearing, Winter did seek forgiveness -- but not the kind the family of Erin Thompson and Caden was looking for. Winter said that she would never intentionally hurt anyone and asked for forgiveness for having no memory of the crash.
"I just hope that you guys will be able to forgive that I will never be able to say that this actually happened, that I intentionally crossed the center line … wanting to take three lives from all of you," Winter said.
Corrigan prodded her to take accountability.
"But what they've wanted to hear from you for a long, long time also is, 'I'm sorry.' Can you tell them that?"
Winter would only offer a partial apology.
"I'm sorry for your loss. But I cannot … I, I don't … know what you're meaning by you want me to say that I'm sorry," she said.
Her words were a blow to the victims' family. Dianna Johnson, mother to Erin and grandmother to Caden, told "20/20": "I think to really forgive her would take her being sorry. Even if she doesn't remember that night she would still have to own it that this was her."
Winter has said that she would like to do something to honor Erin Thompson and Caden and also to help others. In her written statement to the court, Winter said, "I know this story is miraculous and I aspire to inspire people with it. I would like to put together some sort of foundation in remembrance to those lost during the accident on March 19, 2009. I want people, especially teens, to realize they should never take anything they have for granted because it could all be taken away in as little as a split second."
Justine Winter Case: Restorative Justice?
If her efforts to appeal her conviction fail, Winter will be eligible for parole in seven-and-a-half years, when she's 25.
Jason Thompson said he is open to someday meeting with Winter, as a means of restorative justice. He wants, he said, for Winter to "communicate her sorrow for being responsible" for the deaths of his loved ones.
"When she's ready to do that," he said. "I'd be happy to meet with her."