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Emily Bess Levens


Weeks after prosecutors dropped a charge of vehicular homicide while under the influence, the driver whose SUV hit and killed Benno Big Back Jr. in Missoula almost a year ago pleaded guilty to her remaining charges on Wednesday.

Emily Levens will be sentenced April 9 after pleading guilty to a felony for failing to stop at a scene where a person was killed, as well as misdemeanors for driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license and failure to carry proof of insurance.

According to court records, a woman called 911 in February 2017 after hearing a crash outside her home near the intersection of Mount Avenue and Hollis Street. She told dispatchers she saw a man’s body in the street, and a woman standing over it. When she told the woman, Levens, that she was calling for help, Levens got back in her SUV and drove away.

Officers followed a trail of vehicle fluid from the scene to Levens’ house. When she came outside, officers reported that she smelled of alcoholic beverage and scored poorly on field sobriety tests. A court affidavit stated that she later told a detective she had been drinking at a casino that night before driving home, but didn’t see Big Back until she hit him.

In late January, chief deputy county attorney Jason Marks filed an amended set of charges against Levens, which included removing a felony count of vehicular homicide while under the influence.

Marks made the decision to drop that felony charge after reviewing a crash reconstruction that Levens’ defense team commissioned about the incident that killed Big Back, and getting a second opinion from a Montana Highway Patrol crash investigator.

The crash reconstruction report Marks referenced in deciding not to pursue the vehicular homicide charge concluded that Levens had been driving the speed limit, and was unable to avoid Big Back after he jogged in front of her vehicle.

The crash happened at night, and Big Back was wearing dark clothing and shoes with no reflective material, the report also noted.

Levens’ public defense attorney Joan Burbridge told District Court Judge Leslie Halligan on Wednesday her client’s pleas were being made without a plea agreement, giving the judge full latitude in what penalty to hand down. The remaining felony that Levens pleaded guilty to carries a minimum one year in prison, although Halligan could make a special ruling to go below that mandatory minimum if the judge feels the circumstances merit it.

Levens has been out of custody since being released on pretrial supervision in March.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.