On September 30, 2018, Angela Wimmer was on her way home from mass when she was struck from behind while sitting at a red light in Lakewood, CO. Wimmer’s Mazda was propelled forward at 43 miles per hour and proceeded to hit three other vehicles before resting in the middle of the intersection. The car was smashed inwards from its rear, with six feet of intrusion from the impact. Wimmer was found inside by nearby off duty firefighters, who described her as unresponsive in all ways except the rapid movement of her eyelashes. She was rushed to the hospital, where she lost her life.
The driver responsible, Todd Grudznske, had driven his 7,000 pound truck into the rear end of Wimmer’s vehicle. After the impact, Grudznske continued forward, propelling his truck into a ditch in front of a McDonalds on the other side of the intersection. Grudznske spun the wheels of his truck in a way that witnesses testified as an attempt to flee. However, the vehicle was stuck in place and Grudznske was forced to remain at the scene. He was later found to have a BAC of .341.
Typically, drunk drivers who cause the death of another receive vehicular manslaughter charges. Grudznske, however, was charged and convicted of first degree murder. This is the first time in the state’s history that a Colorado DUI case has lead to a first degree murder conviction. But how can a death caused by driving under the influence be attached to such severe charges?
First Degree Murder in Colorado
In this case, Grudznske was charged with a particular subset of first degree murder called “extreme indifference murder.” Colorado Criminal Code §18-3-102 describes this crime:
Under circumstances evidencing an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally, he knowingly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to a person, or persons, other than himself, and thereby causes the death of another.
The application of this definition to this crime requires a careful interpretation of key terms: ‘knowingly,’ ‘universal malice,’ and ‘extreme indifference.’ Below, we break down each of these terms further.
What Does Knowingly Mean?
‘Knowingly’ refers to the mental state of a criminal act. It means that the defendant was aware of their conduct at the time of the crime’s occurrence. It does not necessarily mean that they were aware of the consequences of their conduct, nor does it mean that they planned the crime beforehand. Applied to Grudznske’s case, for him to have acted knowingly, all that would have to be the case is that he was aware he was driving under the influence.
What Does Universal Malice Mean?
‘Universal malice’ is a term that harbors much debate over its specifics and application. Malice (sans universal) simply refers to the intent to harm another. Universal malice, however, means that one performs actions which could be detrimental to anyone who happens to be affected by them. In other words, no specific person is targeted. The term is described differently in various cases in which it has been applied.
In Longinotti v. People, 46 Colo. 173, 102 P. 165 (1909), ‘universal malice’ is said to refer to the “depravity of the human heart, which determines to take a life upon slight or insufficient provocation, without knowing or caring who may be the victim.” This description, with the inclusion of “determines to take a life,” seems to be well suited to crimes such as suicide by cop or acts of planned terrorism. However, a drunk driver such as Todd Grudznske doesn’t appear to fit the bill as one who determined or otherwise intended to take a life.
For the term ‘universal malice’ to apply to his case, Grudznske would need to rely upon remarks from a previous case such as People v. Jefferson 748 P.2d 1223 (1988). In this case, there was debate regarding the difference between second degree murder and first degree murder by extreme indifference. According to People v. Jefferson, the difference between the two crimes is, “the defendant’s conduct demonstrates that his lack of care and concern for the value of human life generally are extreme, and that the circumstances of his actions evidence that aggravated recklessness or cold-bloodedness which has come to be known as ‘universal malice.’” The ‘or’ between recklessness or cold-bloodedness implies that the term may be applied to a case that displays one or the other. Grudznske’s conduct, though it may not have been cold-blooded with the determination to take a life described in Longinotti v. People, can be described as reckless. He acted recklessly in a way that shows no consideration towards the lives he put at risk, which this can be interpreted through People v. Jefferson as an appropriate display of universal malice.
What Does Extreme Indifference Mean?
The final term is ‘extreme indifference,’ meaning extreme indifference to the value of human life. How can this indifference be displayed in a case? People v. Lara 224 P.3d 388 (2009) holds the idea that “an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally” does not relate to a mental state, but rather to the facts surrounding the defendant’s actions. This leaves the only required mental state of the defendant to be ‘knowingly.’ Additionally, the idea that universal malice manifests extreme indifference makes it seem as though for universal malice to be applied to the case, then violence as a result of the defendant’s knowing conduct is the only necessary link to prove extreme indifference.
Did Grudznske Act Knowingly and with Universal Malice and Extreme Indifference?
Thus, if Grudznske acted knowingly and with universal malice, supported by People v. Jefferson, then Wimmer’s death and the violence of the crash show that he also acted with extreme indifference. Wimmer’s death shows the dangers that were inherent in the conduct that Grudznske knowingly performed, and therefore shows that to engage in such conduct he would have had an attitude of extreme indifference in order to subject others to such dangers.
By piecing together how each of these terms apply to this case, we have a better idea of how Grudznske was convicted of first degree murder for what might otherwise have been considered vehicular homicide.
This case has the potential to be a Colorado landmark regarding the way in which DUIs are charged. Currently, Grudznske’s case is up for appeals. Even if the appeal is overturned, it wouldn’t become evident until some time passes how common it will be to apply the charge of fisrt degree murder or what types of DUI cases the charge may apply to. This case could potentially be used to justify charging any drunk driver on a public road with attempted first degree murder, even if nobody is harmed by their conduct. The sheer risk and recklessness could support the idea that any drunk driver is evincing an attitude of universal malice. However, driving under the influence is such a common crime that applying these charges in such a wide manner would surely be overcharging.
Only time will tell how this case makes its mark in Colorado case law.