CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A former University of Wyoming student who pleaded guilty in the drunken driving deaths of eight students will soon be out on parole after serving fewer than 10 years in prison, angering the parents of some victims and rekindling their questions about how the state's justice system treats alcohol-related crimes.
Clint Haskins, then 21, was charged with aggravated vehicular homicide in the deaths of the students, all members of the school's cross country team. He had several beers and mixed drinks before he headed to Colorado to see his girlfriend and veered into oncoming traffic in the early hours of Sept. 16, 2001.
Carbon County prosecutor Cal Rerucha had recommended a 14-to-20-year sentence for each count, to be served concurrently. Over the objections of some parents, District Judge Jeffrey A. Donnell accepted the deal in 2002.
He also ordered Haskins to pay about $81,000 in restitution to the families.
"All along we have said it's absolutely ridiculous," said David Salverson, whose son, Kevin, was killed. "The plea agreement, we totally disagreed with that, and stated that in court."
Haskins entered the Wyoming State Penitentiary in June 2002. He was transferred to a halfway house in November and will be released on parole Feb. 1.
Haskins has spoken to university and high school students and convicted drunken drivers about his experience, and those appearances may have factored in the Wyoming Parole Board's decision in January.
The board ordered Haskins not to consume or possess alcohol or enter a bar, to pay restitution and to attend drug and alcohol counseling. He will be permitted to return to his parents' home in Maybell, Colo.
Kerry Shatto, whose son Shane was killed, attended the parole hearing and said he heard nothing that indicated the board intended to grant parole. The board informed victims' parents by a letter dated Jan. 27.
"He didn't spend that much time in prison to begin with," Shatto said. "Really, it hasn't been that tough."
The judge in the case declined to comment, saying he was prohibited under judicial conduct codes from discussing specific cases. Rerucha, who is now chief prosecutor in Carbon County, did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
His successor in Albany County, Richard Bohling, said Haskins' release before the 14-year minimum of the prison sentence was not surprising, given inmate incentives such as good conduct.
Haskins declined to comment through the Department of Corrections.
Debbie McLeland, whose son Morgan died in the crash, has spoken alongside Haskins about the incident, and believes it's time for parole.
"I believe that he's remorseful and sorry," McLeland said. "Other people don't believe that, and that's certainly their prerogative."
Kerrie Kimmel, who volunteers with victims' groups in Sheridan, said Haskins makes a "powerful and emotional" presentation to audiences, especially high school students.
"Here's a person trying to put his life back together, and he's paying the price," she said. "And even though he may be getting out, you can definitely tell that he lives with this every single day of his life."
But Shatto, who served on a governor-appointed panel to recommend ways to reduce drunken driving, said Wyoming was still too lenient on drunken drivers who kill.
"I mean, if I pointed a gun at somebody and I pulled the trigger, I had a choice not to do that. Same thing if I was drinking and I get behind a wheel and kill somebody," Shatto said.
Over the last 10 years, Wyoming has passed laws requiring tests for drivers suspected of driving drunk, banning open containers in cars, and doubling to 10 years the time that drunken driving offenses stay on a person's driving record. The legal blood-alcohol limit also has been reduced to 0.08.
At the time of Haskin's crash, the limit was 0.10. Tests revealed Haskins had a blood-alcohol content of 0.16.
"We've really accomplished a lot just in the last few years, and a lot of that has to do with many of these parents of these young kids helping us by testifying and keeping up the pressure and meeting with their local legislators," said Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson.
Still, in 2010, alcohol was involved in 72 percent of nearly 19,000 arrests in the state, according to a study done by the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police.
Haskins had been a member of the university's rodeo team in 2001 when his 1-ton pickup struck the SUV carrying the cross country team members about 15 miles south of Laramie. The students were returning from Fort Collins, Colo., where they visited friends and shopped for running shoes.
Killed were Morgan McLeland, of Gillette; Nicholas Schabron, of Laramie; Justin Lambert-Belanger, of Timmins, Ontario; Cody Brown, of Hudson, Colo.; Kyle Johnson, of Riverton; Joshua Jones, of Salem, Ore.; Kevin Salverson, of Cheyenne; and Shane Shatto, of Douglas.Comment on this story
McLeland said she and Haskins planned to continue their talks after he is released.
"I think that we do make an impact," she said.
Salverson is angered by the speeches.
"They were turning him into a celebrity rather than a punishment," Salverson said. "So we keep saying, we're wondering, when his punishment will start."