MANKATO — Saying he would trade his life for the lives of his two victims “in a heartbeat,” Mark Chalin sobbed Monday as he begged a judge to not send him to prison for a 2011 crash that killed two women.
His plea for leniency was only one of many emotional moments during a sentencing hearing that ended with the mother of 23-year-old Amber Menezes, who was Chalin’s girlfriend and one of his victims, kneeling on the courtroom floor. She had just attempted to follow Chalin, 24, through a door that leads to the jail.
“Mark, Mark,” Michelle Scholl said as Chalin was led away by a bailiff. “You do good. Make the best of this.”
Then Scholl, Menezes’ mother, fell to the floor, pounded it with both hands and said, “Nobody wins.”
Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Chris Rovney recommended a 58-month prison sentence for the Aug. 7, 2011, crash that also killed 35-year-old Jonna Martin of Lakefield.
Witnesses told investigators Chalin was driving recklessly on Highway 169 shortly before he hit Martin head-on while they were both traveling on Blue Earth County Road 90. Menezes was on Chalin’s lap and it appeared they had been having sex before Chalin veered into Martin’s lane and smashed into her car while she slowed and pulled to the shoulder.
Chalin’s attorney, Jacob Birkholz, asked District Court Judge Bradley Walker to issue a sentence below the 48 to 58 months recommended by sentencing guidelines. Birkholz said Chalin should receive 10 years of probation with the condition he serve one year in prison with work release privileges. That way he could start paying restitution through earnings from his minimum wage job at a fast-food restaurant, Birkholz said.
There were emotional appeals from both sides of the courtroom. Friends and family of the victims told Walker that Chalin needed to go to prison. Chris Menezes, who was married to Amber but separated from her at the time of the crash, listed several run-ins Chalin had with the law prior to being charged with two counts of vehicular homicide.
“I’m certain if you do not send him to prison, someone else will suffer,” Chris Menezes said.
Statements from three of Martin’s four children were read on their behalf. Two older children, Jeremiah and Savannah, repeatedly asked why Chalin had killed their mother. The youngest daughter, Zoe, simply said, “I feel sad because I want to see my mom.”
Birkholz called several witnesses, including Chalin, to support his motion for a downward departure.
His mother, Becky Chalin of St. James, was hardly audible as she described a child who is intelligent and caring. She said her son had become more responsible after dealing with some troubles with alcohol.
His brother, Steve Chalin of St. Peter, told Walker he used to work at the prison in Stillwater. He said prison isn’t the place for Mark because nothing good ever happens there and “he’s not as dumb as he was when he did this.”
Mark Chalin was already sobbing when Birkholz asked him to sit in the witness chair and describe his relationship with Menezes. Chalin said she started living with a friend after she was kicked out of her house. For two weeks prior to the crash, they had been living together at Chalin’s apartment on Byron Street.
They had gone to his father’s wedding in Blue Earth the day before the crash. He introduced her to his family and friends, they danced and they had a few drinks at the reception. Chalin echoed Scholl’s description of her daughter when he said everyone immediately became friends with Menezes.
They spent the night at Chalin’s father’s new home near Delavan and he said they were sober when they left for Mankato on Aug. 7. He said the last thing he remembers before the crash is turning on to Highway 169 and heading north.
Chalin said he remembers waking up with a pool of blood in his lap before blacking out again. There’s another brief memory of hearing the sounds of a helicopter flying him to Rochester.
“The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital bed with my family standing around me,” Chalin said. “The first thing I asked is, ‘Where is Amber.’ My dad just looked at me and shook his head. I passed out again.”
Chalin was hospitalized for 36 days.
“I’m so sorry for everything that happened” he said. “Don’t think I’m not feeling any pain.”
Rovney said Walker needed to follow the recommendations of a pre-sentence investigation and send Chalin to prison.
“I’m sure he’s remorseful, but there has to be a punishment,” Rovney said. “If we don’t punish people for that kind of decision making, what’s going to stop them from doing it in the future.
“Two people died. Fifty-eight months in prison, then the rest of his life is not that bad of a deal. He has the rest of his life to pay restitution. But now he has to be punished.”
Walker said he listened to everything everyone had to say and reviewed all the information from the case carefully. The courtroom was dead silent after he issued his sentence: 50 months in prison. That would be just over four years, with the possibility of supervised release after about three years.
Before the silence, Walker also pointed out that many people’s lives had been changed by the tragic crash. Children were without a mother, a mother had lost a daughter and Roger Thompson, Martin’s boyfriend, had lost a woman he loved. Another family was watching a young man face the consequences of his actions.
“Nobody’s going to be happy today,” Walker said. “It’s not my job to make people happy. It’s not a contest.
“I just hope everyone can walk out of this courtroom thinking about how someone’s life can change in an instant.”