ON THE RUN: Cruising into incarceration
Two weeks ago, snow enthusiasts and non-snowbird folks alike, turned their attention to Eagle County, Colo., outside of Vail, and the trial of Nathan Hall.
A former employee of Vail Associates, Hall was convicted one week before Thanksgiving for the April 1997 death of Alan Cobb. Hall had just finished his shift as a lift operator for Vail Resorts and was apparently bombing down the mountain when he collided with the 33-year-old Cobb. The collision resulted in Cobb’s death, and autopsy reports indicate Cobb was hit on the head with a ski.
Witnesses called to testify in the case reported seeing Hall skiing on the back of his skis, with his tips in the air and his arms out to the side. Reckless? Out of control? Most definitely.
At least, that is what the 12 jurors decided when they convicted Hall of negligent homicide. The maximum sentence for this conviction in Colorado is three years.
Many Hall supporters argue this sentence is too harsh and unfair for what they deem was an “accident.”
The lead story in the Vail Daily paper was an interview with Hall’s attorney and his disillusionment with the verdict. Brett Heckman, attorney for Hall since 1997, stated “I don’t think I was anticipating the media coverage at the trial . . . I do think the media coverage and the public policy really eclipsed the case itself. It became more important to send a message to the skiing public than it was to treat Nathan Hall as he otherwise would have been treated in any other case.”
After the high profile deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Sonny Bono two years ago, the national spotlight has focused on the dangers of skiing and personal responsibility. Movements in support of helmet laws have multiplied faster than a wet gremlin, and resorts have begun eliminating obstacles and wrapping lift poles in an attempt to “accident proof” the runs.
With all of this attention to safety, the Hall case became a pivotal decision in skier responsibity, setting a precedent for future cases involving ski-related deaths. The rest of the country was watching as Hall’s fate was decided, in what was one of the most high profile cases to grace Eagle County.
As for Heckman’s argument that the media frenzy prevented Hall from receiving a fair trial, that is a question that no one can answer.
However, if Hall had been behind the wheel of a car and had recklessly commited this act, a year or two in jail would be a slight sentence.
Heckman believes that Hall was used as “the poster boy for reckless skiing.” I say, rightfully so – considering he was exactly that on that April afternoon.
While few skiers or snowboarders can honestly say they have never felt out of control on the slopes, myself included, a line needed to be drawn to make each person responsible for their actions on the mountain.
The definition of criminal negligence is “grossly deviating from the standard of care.” It is, without a doubt, difficult to discern where this applies and when an accident is an accident.
Some may say that Hall lost his case in the courtroom of public opinion long before the verdict was rendered. While this may be true, the skiing public was the victor in this case, and that is a victory that needed to be won.
At the very least, perhaps this verdict will scare a few people into monitoring their actions on the slopes, so that even if they don’t care about their own safety, they will be forced to be concerned about others.
Lara Mullin is the Sierra Sun’s sportswriter.
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