A Red Deer man was found not guilty on Friday of driving dangerously or while impaired before a rollover crash near Sylvan Lake that killed his uncle and “best friend.”
Mathew Joseph Duda, 24, was charged with dangerous driving causing death and impaired driving causing death more than 14 months after the June 4, 2008, collision on Hwy 11 about two km east of Sylvan Lake. A charge of failing to remain at the scene of an accident was later withdrawn.
At first, Duda denied being behind the wheel but confessed to being the driver in August 2009 during an interview at Bowden Institution, where he was serving a three-year sentence for sexual assault. Police had come to the prison to take a DNA sample to match with blood recovered from the driver’s side of the wrecked truck.
Ross Loblaw, 36, of Delburne was killed after he was thrown from the truck when it rolled several times after hitting the grassed median about 3 a.m. as the men returned to Red Deer from a Rocky Mountain House bar. Loblaw died at the scene and was found by passersby, who called police.
Duda testified during his three-day trial this week that he went looking for help, passed out near a wooded area off the highway and then hitchhiked into Red Deer later in the day.
Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Kirk Sisson said that while Duda, who has a long criminal record, was an “unreliable and self-serving witness,” there simply was not enough evidence to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt on the two charges.
“I would have preferred to convict you. But the evidence isn’t there,” said Sisson.
He said he didn’t know what Duda, a father of three, intended to do with his life but hoped that after the death of his uncle that he had “smartened up and his death is not for nothing.”
Duda’s aunt and Loblaw’s older sister, Mikki Newell, gave her nephew a hug in court after the verdict.
“Now we can begin to heal,” she outside the courtroom a short time later. “I know my brother would not have wanted any of this. I know that my brother loved Mathew very much.”
During his testimony, an emotional Duda said his uncle was always there for him despite his troubles with the law. He considered Loblaw his best friend.
The evidence that Duda was impaired hinged on testimony from a waitress, who served Duda and Loblaw in the Rocky Mountain House bar, and an ex-girlfriend.
While the waitress, who is a cousin, did her best to recount the events of that evening, she was not “particularly reliable,” said Sisson.
Likewise, the ex-girlfriend’s testimony that Duda told her that he and Loblaw were “really drunk” is not enough to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he was impaired, he said.
The dangerous driving charge requires proof of a “marked departure” from the standard of care expected of a driver and that was not established beyond all doubt, the justice said.
Defence lawyer Paul Gracia said he was satisfied with the verdict. “There’s always satisfaction when the evidence is not there to support the charges.
“I suppose the mob mentality would prefer to point the finger at someone and be able to hang someone, but justice was served.
“This was a tragic accident. It’s not a criminal act.”
Crown prosecutor Maurice Collard said, “although I’m disappointed, the court gave a thoughtful, well-reasoned decision.”
An appeal is unlikely.