Receives 30 years in 2017 deaths
HENDERSON COUNTY–After a week-long trial before Judge Scott McKee in the 392nd District Court, a Henderson County jury convicted 21-year-old Austin Blake Junell, of two counts of intoxication manslaughter for the December 2017 deaths of two teenage girls, aged 17 and 18.
The girls were passengers in a 2002 Toyota Highlander driven by Junell that ran a stop sign at the intersection of County Road 2938 and State Highway 175 in Mabank, at approximately 10:50 p.m. The Toyota collided with a tractor-trailer rig heading west on 175, causing the rig to overturn in the median of the highway. The driver of the truck suffered a fractured shoulder, and a third male passenger riding with the defendant escaped serious injury.
One of the young women died at the scene, while the other succumbed to her injuries the following day.
Junell was alert at the scene and spoke to at least three passersby who had stopped to assist, telling them that he had been driving the car. He repeated that fact to EMS personnel, hospital staff and Mabank Police while being treated for minor injuries, and also admitted to having been drinking alcohol prior to the crash. Toxicology results from blood taken at the hospital showed his blood alcohol content to be .124, one and a half times the legal limit.
Junell at first claimed that the brakes of the car had failed causing the accident, but a forensic examination of the wrecked car determined that they were in working order. Several weeks after the crash, the defendant changed his story and claimed that the surviving male passenger was the actual driver of the car.
The State, represented by assistant District Attorneys Elizabeth Miles and Pink Dickens, called 20 witnesses to testify before the jury in the five day trial which began Monday, April 29. After the close of evidence on guilt-innocence, the jury returned the guilty verdicts on both counts.
The following morning, additional evidence for the purpose of assessing punishment was heard, including testimony by the defendant who admitted that he was indeed the driver. After about an hour of deliberation, the jury sentenced Junell to 15 years in the Texas Department of Justice – Institutional Division, in each case. In addition to an affirmative finding of the use of a deadly weapon in both counts, Judge McKee “stacked” the sentences on a motion by the State, meaning that they will run consecutive to one another as opposed to concurrently.
Cpl. Kenneth Otterline of the Mabank Police Department was lead investigator in the case. Body cam video from officer Steve Randall captured at the scene of the crash was also instrumental in discrediting the defendant’s belated claim that he was not the driver.
“The successful prosecution of this case was the culmination of a huge effort on the part of the Mabank Police Department and the Henderson County D.A.’s office. In addition to the support of others in the office, Liz Miles put in many overtime hours preparing for this case, and she and Pink did an excellent job presenting the facts to the jury,” said District Attorney Mark Hall.
“Public warnings about the dangers of drinking and driving have been front and center in this country for decades, but we still have to confront cases like this. Not only did two young girls tragically lose their lives, but many others left in the wake of Austin Junell’s decision to get behind the wheel will continue to suffer the consequences of his actions,” said Hall.