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Duluth driver who once killed man given second chance with DWI Court

David Smithson was spared a return to prison Tuesday, with a judge and prosecutor crediting his efforts in the treatment court program.

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Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Vicky Wanta said she was disappointed to see David Andrew Smithson's name come across her desk in March 2019.

Just a few years earlier, Wanta had prosecuted Smithson for fatally striking a pedestrian along Grand Avenue while he was impaired by methamphetamine.

This time, the Duluth man had been arrested for impaired driving after he was found passed out on an off-ramp roughly a block from where he killed Brian Respler. Smithson would later admit he had used heroin and meth several hours before driving to meet with his probation officer.

By all accounts, a defendant in Smithson's position could expect a prosecutor to push for a strong prison sentence to underscore the dangers and consequences of impaired driving. Wanta herself said she cuts very few breaks for offenders, especially in DWI cases.

But Smithson has proved to be a unique defendant aimed at bettering himself, as exemplified by his ongoing participation in the South St. Louis County DWI Court program, Wanta told a court Tuesday.

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"Even in his thick fog of addiction, he continually shows these glimmers of good character and someone who does want to do better," the prosecutor said. "I have always believed Mr. Smithson has the capability to do better and now he's starting to prove it."

David Andrew Smithson
David Andrew Smithson

Smithson, 32, was granted a departure from guidelines at a virtual sentencing hearing in State District Court.

Judge Shaun Floerke stayed a four-year prison term and placed Smithson on five years of supervised probation, the terms of which include the successful completion of the DWI Court program.

"We asked you to prove yourself worthy of the chance, and you've surely done that," said Floerke, who tracks Smithson's progress as presiding judge of the specialty court.

"We've been doing this for months and months and months. You've done treatment. You've had good relationships with your brother, with your family. You've made some really thoughtful choices about how to kind of live your life and who to be involved with and who to not be involved with, and that's been really impressive."

Smithson in 2016 pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal vehicular homicide , admitting he was under the influence of several drugs when he dozed off at the wheel and drove onto the sidewalk along Grand Avenue on Dec. 19, 2015. He stated that he opened his eyes just in time to see Respler, a father of four, as he was fatally struck by the van.

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Smithson was sentenced to four years in prison in that case . He was released from custody in August 2018 to serve the remainder of his time under community supervision.

His latest arrest came on the afternoon of March 6, 2019, when a Minnesota State Patrol trooper found his car blocking traffic on the Interstate 35 exit ramp to Grand Avenue. Smithson showed signs of impairment, was not wearing shoes and had a needle in a sock on the floor, according to court documents.

Smithson pleaded guilty Sept. 29 to a felony charge of first-degree driving while impaired, admitting he had used meth some 8-10 hours before he was found asleep. He said he was "way too tired to be driving" and repeatedly called it a "a very dumb decision" to get behind the wheel.

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Brian Respler

Wanta said she has been in contact with the Respler family about Smithson's new case and that "all they want is for him to find a way to stop this."

"I think the strong supervision of DWI Court will keep this community safe," she said. "And I don't mean keep the community safe from Mr. Smithson. I mean keep the community safe with Mr. Smithson playing an active role in that safety."

Russ Spurrier, a probation officer with the DWI Court, said Smithson's participation is "kind of a special case for our court."

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"We don't do them very often with a history like that," he said. "However, David came in and has shown that he wants to work the program. So I think he's a good candidate for the program as long as he keeps doing what he's been doing. I see good things."

Smithson told Floerke he's "grateful for the chance."

"It's been a long road for me," he said. "I'm just tired. I'm just sick of putting all the people I love down โ€” letting them down and letting myself down. I believe I deserve better. I know I'm a better person. I know I can do better."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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