Inside Report: Trial delays grieve families

It’s often said the wheels of justice turn slowly, but that’s of little comfort to Michele Carson, whose 20-year-old daughter was killed in a January 2010 hit-and-run in Baton Rouge, and to Derek and Amy Hopper, whose 2-month-old son died in October 2010 at a now-defunct Baker day care center.

Carson and the Hoppers are angry and frustrated that the people charged in the deaths of their loved ones have not been brought to trial in the 19th Judicial District Courthouse, and they fear Mikel “Misha” Carson and Brody Hopper have been forgotten.

Christian Cvitanovich, 37, of Metairie, was indicted in December 2010 on a felony hit-and-run driving charge in Carson’s death and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted as charged.

A March 17 trial date was recently scrubbed at the defense’s request due to a scheduling conflict. He is now set to stand trial June 2.

Michele Carson, who lives in South America, flew to Baton Rouge in mid-March and said her daughter’s friends don’t think there’s going to be justice. “People forget. Think about it. Four years. People forget details.”

Mikel Carson was killed Jan. 31, 2010, while checking on a motorist involved in a separate accident on Interstate 10 near College Drive.

After allegedly hitting Carson, Cvitanovich stopped his sport utility vehicle at an unknown location and changed a tire, removed a headlight and part of the front bumper, an arrest warrant says. He then took the SUV to a Metairie body shop on Feb. 1, 2010, and requested it be repaired without notifying the insurance company. He told workers at the shop he had hit a deer, but called back the next day, said he was involved in a hit-and-run, and told the shop’s owner to be expecting a visit from police, the warrant says.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III noted the prosecution in the hit-and-run case was slowed for a time by a civil lawsuit that Mikel Carson’s father filed against Cvitanovich a year after her death.

And in the day care case, Moore has said the case hasn’t moved as swiftly as the Hoppers would like partly because it is a “scientific-based case” involving experts on both sides and double-testing of some evidence.

Cvitanovich, who is represented by father and son lawyers Lewis and Lance Unglesby, is innocent, Lewis Unglesby said in a recent interview. “I don’t think it should be a criminal case. I feel like this is a legitimate civil case,” the elder Unglesby said. “I can certainly feel for the disappointment of the family in losing their daughter.”

In the other case, former day care worker Ashley Reifer, 25, of Baker, was indicted in August 2011 on a second-degree murder charge in Brody Hopper’s death and faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if found guilty as charged. A status hearing is set for April 24.

The Hoppers, who along with members of their family attend every hearing in the murder case involving their son, are upset that a trial date has never been set in the case.

“We don’t want the system to forget him,” Amy Hopper said in December.

“It’s the same nightmare over and over. It hurts every time we come here” to the courthouse, Derek Hopper added.

Moore said he can understand Michele Carson’s and the Hoppers’ frustrations but stressed neither case has been forgotten. He said his office has been actively pursuing both cases.

Lance Unglesby, who represents Reifer, also maintains her innocence. “I understand the family is upset. Naturally, as a parent, you want to know why,” he has said. “Ashley is not responsible for the death of Brody.”

Brody Hopper was strapped into his car-carrying seat and bleeding from the nose when Derek Hopper arrived to pick him up Oct. 28, 2010, at the now-closed Busy Bee Learning Center on Groom Road in Baker, according to court documents. Workers at the center described Brody’s morning as routine and normal, and said the child was in the exclusive care of Reifer from 12:20 p.m. until his father arrived several hours later. Reifer is accused of shaking Brody to death.

Joe Gyan Jr. covers courts for The Advocate. He can be reached at jgyan@theadvocate.com.