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Family of Sun Prairie hit-and-run victim questions plea deal

By Jessica Arp, jarp@wisctv.com
Published On: May 06 2014 07:16:31 PM CDT
Updated On: May 06 2014 09:07:31 PM CDT

A former Lutheran bishop accused of killing a Sun Prairie woman with his car will enter a guilty plea next week. But the plea deal is for one felony charge, rather than the four felonies he was originally facing.

MADISON, Wis. -

A former Lutheran bishop accused of killing a Sun Prairie woman with his car will enter a guilty plea next week. But the plea deal is for one felony charge, rather than the four felonies he was originally facing.

Bruce Burnside, 60, is scheduled to appear in court May 13 for a plea hearing. A trial had been scheduled for next week.

Burnside is facing multiple felonies in an April 2013 crash that killed Maureen Mengelt, 52, on the northbound off-ramp of Highway 151 near Windsor Street in Sun Prairie. Police said they located Burnside with his heavily damaged vehicle at a Kelley's Mobil gas station a block away from the scene of the crash.

Burnside was charged with homicide by the intoxicated use of a vehicle, homicide by use of a vehicle with a prohibited alcohol concentration, hit-and-run, hit-and-run involving death and homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle.

He's now expected to plead guilty to one felony count of second-degree reckless homicide and first-offense operating while intoxicated as part of a plea deal offered by Dane County prosecutor Emily Thompson.

Maureen Mengelt's family said they have expressed their concern about a likely deal, and said what's being offered is wrong.

"I've seen an erosion of the charges against him," said Kevin Mengelt, Maureen Mengelt's husband. "A step back, so the charges become ever more lenient. I've watched this over the last several weeks, partly in disbelief, partly in horror."

Thompson wouldn't comment on the case, citing the ongoing court proceedings.

Burnside's attorney, John Hyland, said the plea deal is because of unusual circumstances. A judge ruled earlier this year that a field sobriety test administered to Burnside would be inadmissible at trial because of mistakes by a Sun Prairie police officer, but a blood test that showed his blood-alcohol content above the legal limit would be admitted. Hyland said a separate case being considered by a state appeals court may rule those type of blood tests are also inadmissible at trial, which could leave any outcome of the case in doubt.

"The simple point of it is understanding everyone's desire for closure and for certainty and we reached an agreement that provided that, we believe, to Mr. Burnside, to Mr. Mengelt, to the community," Hyland said.

"To offer a plea deal at this level is just a failure of our criminal justice system," Kevin Mengelt said. "They have taken something from my family. They have hurt us so severely. It has taken so long and then to see no real justice -- the justice that has been offered is he'll go to jail sooner."

Hyland said if it was clear that the appeals court ruling was coming soon, there may have been a different outcome. Instead, his client will take responsibility on the single felony charge.

"This result gives us the certainty of a conviction and closure," Hyland said. "I hope the Mengelt family will be able to appreciate that in the end."

But Kevin Mengelt said it makes him feel entirely different.

"I think people in the public should ask themselves, ‘If he can't be convicted of a crime when it is so clear, how can they feel safe?’" Mengelt said. "How can they feel that justice is going to be done ever?"

Burnside will be in court next Tuesday to make his plea. Thompson said Monday she'd seek eight years in prison with five years extended supervision on the amended charges. Hyland will ask for less.

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