The former husband of a Gray woman who was hit and killed by a car says he understands why authorities decided to drop a drunken-driving charge against the driver, but still believes the North Yarmouth man should be held responsible.

Samantha Rinaldi Photo courtesy Aaron Ballard

“I still feel it’s criminally negligent to take someone’s life, regardless of if it’s an accident,” said Aaron Ballard of Poland, asking whether a 21-year-old man in the same situation would get similar treatment.

Samantha Rinaldi, Ballard’s ex-wife and the mother of four children, was hit and killed as she walked down Yarmouth Road in Gray on April 27. Police initially charged Jay Westra with operating under the influence because he admitted to having consumed alcohol before he hit Rinaldi, 40, and an officer at the accident scene said he smelled alcohol.

Westra was not given a breath test but consented to a blood test at the time of the crash. It showed that his blood-alcohol level was 0.047, below the legal limit of 0.08. Westra’s attorney later said his client had consumed two beers.

On Thursday, Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck announced that his office was dropping the charge against Westra, and noted that there were no signs of distracted driving or negligence.

Ballard said that when Sahrbeck spoke with Rinaldi’s family to explain the decision not to charge Westra, Sahrbeck called the accident the result of  “a perfect storm” of events: Rinaldi was walking in the road with her back to traffic, she was wearing dark clothes, and there was poor visibility because it was dusk and it was raining.

Ballard said he understands that the district attorney has to meet a “burden of proof” to make a case. But the family still wonders.

“My kids are surprised,” Ballard said, “and are asking me questions like, ‘I don’t understand, Dad. How can someone kill someone and not be held responsible for it?'”

Sahrbeck, however, said it’s not unusual to have an accident in which someone dies and the driver isn’t charged.

“We have to go by what the law is, and if the facts of a situation don’t actually rise to the level of criminal charges, then we are bound by our obligations as criminal prosecutors  not to charge” the individual, the district attorney said in a telephone interview Friday night.

Ballard also wondered whether the district attorney was “going easy” on Westra, 58, because his wife had recently taken her life and he was taking care of their two children.

Kristin Westra, a teacher at the Chebeague Island School, went missing for six days last fall before her body was discovered in the woods not far from their North Yarmouth home.

Jay Westra Photo courtesy of Jay Westra

Sahrbeck rejected the notion that Westra is getting special treatment.

“I can tell you every case that comes to us, we look at the facts that are presented to us,” he said. “We don’t look at any extenuating circumstances surrounding that individual. We don’t give special treatment to any individual in any situation. We have to look at the actual evidence in front of us.”

Sahrbeck added that he “completely sympathizes” with Ballard and his family. “This is a mother of four who tragically lost her life,” he said.

Ballard also is concerned that the official account of the accident makes it seem as if Rinaldi was at fault, since she was walking in the road. That, he said, “is absolutely never the case when you’re talking a vehicle-pedestrian accident. The pedestrian is never at fault.”

Officials took a blood sample from Rinaldi after the accident to determine if she was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but there was not enough blood in the sample to test.

 

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