Before a packed courtroom, a former Lutheran bishop pleaded guilty Tuesday to driving drunk and killing a woman as she jogged last year in Sun Prairie.
The Rev. Bruce Burnside, 60, was taken to jail after he pleaded guilty to second-degree reckless homicide and first-offense drunken driving for the April 7, 2013, death of Maureen Mengelt, 52, whom he hit with his car while driving to deliver a sermon at a church in Sun Prairie.
Assistant District Attorney Emily Thompson described the plea agreement under which Burnside was convicted as the best possible way to get a felony conviction while avoiding lengthy appeals that would almost certainly occur had Burnside been convicted of the original charge of homicide by drunken driving.
Under the agreement, Thompson will ask for up to eight years in prison followed by five years of extended supervision when Dane County Circuit Judge Nicholas McNamara sentences Burnside in about two months. Burnside’s lawyer, John Hyland, also agreed to recommend a prison sentence that is not specified by the agreement, along with five years of extended supervision.
Second-degree reckless homicide carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and 10 years of extended supervision. First-offense drunken driving is a civil offense that carries a fine of up to $300.
Under the agreement, the charges against Burnside were amended to include the second-degree reckless homicide charge to which Burnside pleaded guilty. Five counts, including homicide by drunken driving and hit and run causing death, were dismissed but may be considered by McNamara when he sentences Burnside.
In a letter filed with the court Tuesday in support of the second-degree reckless homicide conviction, Thompson wrote that Burnside’s driving behavior was “criminally reckless, in that he was not paying proper attention to the roadway. He was using his cellphone while driving, and had been using it to send and receive text messages for several minutes leading up to the crash that caused the death of Maureen Mengelt.”
She also wrote that Burnside was driving too fast and admitted to police that he was looking at his GPS or car radio. He didn’t stop until he was a quarter-mile from where he hit Mengelt.
He was also criminally reckless, Thompson wrote, because he knew he had been drinking and that his behavior “created an unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm to others.”
Last month, McNamara threw out field sobriety tests performed by Sun Prairie police because he said police did not have a reasonable suspicion that Burnside had been drinking, such as the odor of alcohol or slurred speech.
But he allowed admission of a blood test, which found Burnside’s blood-alcohol concentration to be 0.128 percent, above the legal limit of 0.08 percent for drivers in Wisconsin.
Thompson said in court Tuesday that she had asked the state Department of Justice to appeal the ruling on the field sobriety tests.
On the issue of the blood test, Thompson said, a state appeals court is set to rule on a challenge to a recent change in state law allowing blood to be drawn from a driver in the event of a fatal crash if there is reasonable suspicion that a traffic law was violated. Had Burnside been convicted on the homicide by drunken driving charge, and the law was then found unconstitutional, Burnside’s conviction could be overturned as well.
“That outcome does not give closure to the community or to the victims,” Thompson said.
Thompson also said that the eight-year prison sentence she is seeking for the reckless homicide conviction is well in line with sentences often handed down in drunken driving homicide cases.
“This is the best way to get a plea to some level of homicide, with some possible imprisonment, without the possibility of a long appeal,” Thompson said.
Mengelt’s husband, Kevin Mengelt, who was critical last week of the plea agreement, did not comment after Tuesday’s hearing.