The parents of a 4-year-old boy killed Aug. 9 by an intoxicated driver appeared in court Wednesday to forgive the man responsible for the tragedy.
Dr. Christa Balch and her husband, David, a Monterey attorney, asked Superior Court Judge Terrance Duncan to recommend that 31-year-old Dion T. Gussner spend his mandatory 16-year sentence in "the least-restrictive facility possible" for causing the death of their son, Sebastian.
Gussner pleaded guilty Sept. 28 to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, with enhancements for causing great bodily injury in the accident, in which Christa Balch sustained a head injury and paralysis to her hand.
The Balches’ 2-year-old daughter, Ava, was airlifted from the scene with her mother, but her injuries were minor.
Gussner’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident was 0.16 percent — twice the legal limit — and he admitted he was text messaging just before the collision.
Christa Balch and her children, both properly restrained in child seats, were stopped at a red light at River and Las Palmas roads south of Salinas when her 1998 Honda Accord was struck from behind at about 55 mph by Gussner’s 2006 Dodge Ram pickup. Sebastian died on impact.
"Sebastian was a special child. He was full of love and life and joy, and was always looking forward to the next adventure. And we know he’s having a good one now," Christa Balch said Wednesday.
Then she addressed Gussner, seated five feet to her left.
"We want you to know that we all make mistakes. We’re all sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God," she told him. "We forgive you and we’re praying for you."
Her husband was equally merciful, telling the judge that he and his wife do not believe in incarceration for incarceration’s sake, and that "we believe there’s a greater good that can still come from this."
He quoted from a letter he received from a community member that asked the judicial system to "not lose sight of the tremendous asset that Dion presents to witness to others, both within and outside of our prison walls."
Gussner’s parents, Tom and Maria Gussner, and his sister, Jamie, struggled to maintain their emotions as the Balches spoke and when Dion addressed the court without notes a few minutes later.
"I don’t have the words to apologize to the Balches. I don’t know how to say I’m sorry for taking the life of this little boy, who didn’t have a chance to have a life, the chance to play baseball, the chance to go to college ... all of the things we’ve all had the opportunity to do. I took his life by being very selfish," said Gussner, who was a resident of San Luis Obispo, where he had attended college. "I thank the Balches for accepting my apology, but I don’t believe I deserve that.
"I hope you can somehow get through this tragedy and try to regain a life that once was normal," he said. "And I hope Mrs. Balch can recover from her injuries and continue to be a doctor."
Gussner asked the community to help the Balches recover, and to be kind to his own family.
"They were not the ones who made the mistake and do not need to be punished or looked down upon," he said. "They’re wonderful people."
Prosecutor Steve Somers said Gussner consumed five 1.5-ounce shots of whiskey and two 22-ounce beers over a three-hour period at a Salinas restaurant before he headed south on River Road that night.
Christa Balch was following her husband home to the Las Palmas neighborhood south of Salinas. David Balch made it through the light at Las Palmas Road, but his wife stopped when it turned red.
When he realized his wife was no longer following him, David Balch turned around and came upon the accident scene, where his son lay dead.Somers considered filing murder charges against Gussner, but said he believes Gussner pleaded guilty out of remorse, rather than to avoid that potential charge.
Gussner’s attorney, Tom Worthington, said his client’s remorse and sorrow were genuine, and his motive for pleading guilty — a decision he made within days of the accident — was to ensure that neither the Balches nor his own family had to relive the pain.
"Sixteen years is a very long time in prison, and it is a brave thing for a young man to step up and accept that sentence," he told the court. "Every year of it, every day of it, will be worth it to Dion if it helps the Balch family in any way. It’s a price he’ll willingly pay if it helps deter others from making that fatal judgment that, ’I’m OK to drive. I don’t have far to go. I can get there OK.’"
The Balches and the Gussner family embraced and cried together in the courtroom after the hearing. Worthington, a father and grandfather, later characterized the day as the saddest of his 40-year career as an attorney.