My family and I went through a tumultuous 3 years of waiting for justice as we were told that “the wheels of justice turn slowly.” There were delays due to the court being understaffed for judges, speedy trials taking precedent, motions that were made for decrease in charges, and the defense attorney being unable to locate his expert witness amongst other things.
The trial finally started on December 4, 2018. I can’t begin to tell you how hard it was to hear the 911 calls that were made, to see the pictures of the scene, which included ones of my dad, to watch the trial unfold, to listen to testimony of the defendant while she never took responsibility for what she was later convicted of… driving distracted, running a stop sign and killing my dad. It was hard to sit in that court room and wonder if the jury felt as we did, that texting and driving has become an epidemic, one in which a precedent need to be set, that this was not an “accident” as the defense attorney called it, but a blatant disregard for human life. I can’t tell you how hard it was to show up time and time again during the 3 years and feel as if you’re getting nowhere and then have to go back to your life and continue to try to pick up the pieces - only to have to go back to court for another court date that resulted in yet another court date. It was maddening.
The roller coaster of emotions as we held our breath for 3 years finally had an end on December 10, 2018 when the court clerk read the verdict…. GUILTY. The driver was convicted of 192(c)(1), Felony Vehicular Manslaughter and 23123.5 VC, a driving infraction for driving while using a cell phone. All the trips made for court (for those of us who live out of town), all the vacations never taken (because our life was at a standstill with no conclusion), all the tears and anger and sorrow that we felt, not only because of the death of my dad, that is something that is forever, but because we were dragged through 3 years of reliving his death because the driver never took responsibility, she never did the right thing, all of it came to a halt with that one word…. GUILTY. It is the word I had put out to the universe ever since the DA decided to charge her with a felony. It was what I kept in my mind every time a “nay-sayer” would say “don’t be surprised if she isn’t convicted or don’t get your hopes up or she probably won’t get anything but probation.” It is what I thought I needed to hear all along to make it better…. GUILTY. I released that breath and I found… it didn’t change anything. My dad is still gone, taken in quick instance of selfishness. I walked out of that courtroom and I went to the corner and just cried. My mother came over to me and said, “What’s wrong, you got what you wanted?” No, I got what I thought I wanted, what I thought would justify it all, what I thought was justice for my dad. What I was left with, was what I didn’t have the chance to acknowledge during the 3 years because I was so hell bent on that conviction and the anger that raged inside of me for 3 years…. Grief.
The sentencing was scheduled for January 14, 2019. I thought, well, isn’t that great, she gets yet ANOTHER holiday season with her family, while mine disperse their separate ways to once again, try to regain some sort of life, try to celebrate holidays again without my dad, and wait for the finale of this part of the nightmare. My family was allowed to contact the probation officer that the defendant was to report to while awaiting sentencing, in order to give our statements as to how this had affected us. At one point during my statement to the probation officer, she mentioned that the defendant had said that she “takes full responsibility and has so much remorse.” Well, that was 3 years too late and quite frankly, a slap in the face. We got the conviction, now all I could think of was that I wanted the maximum sentence – 6 years in prison. My thought process with wanting the max was this – my family and I have been given a life sentence, that being the death of my dad, it’s something we forever have to live with. The 3 years of BS we had to go through, on the other hand, with a trial to get a conviction for something the defendant later said she takes full responsibility for, enraged me. With California being as lenient as it is and letting all the criminals out of jail as they do, I figured, if she got the 6, then she’d probably only do 3 years which would match the 3 years that our lives were altered for the trial. That was the justification in my mind, anyways.
On January 14, 2019, we showed up to the courthouse for what I hope will be the last time we ever have to go there. We sat nervously in the rows, with so many friends and family surrounding us that showed up for the sentencing. I continued in my belief that what was meant to be would be and that she would receive the max. The judge started off the sentencing in a way that actually pissed me off. He said, mind you, we hadn’t even read our victim impact statements, “that no one would be happy today.” He said the family wouldn’t be happy because he was not going to send her to prison and the defendant wouldn’t be happy because she wouldn’t be going home that day. I had a WTF moment and bit my tongue… hard. My mother, seemingly on the same WTF wavelength, asked the DA if we should even bother reading our statements. That’s how ridiculous that was. Regardless, we did read our statements, all seemed to echo the same theme…the loss of my dad, how amazing he was, how the loss impacts us and the lack of remorse shown. The defendant was given a chance to respond and she told the court (because she never looked at us) how remorseful she is and how she’s suffered from depression and PTSD and how her therapist taught her to compartmentalize things. Well damn, that’s one hell of a therapist, sign me up, I’d love to know how to compartmentalize the death of my dad so that I could go on with my life and pursue things I’ve yet to pursue (as the defendant has), I’d love for my daughter to go back to college (as the defendant continued to do, I say this because at one court date, my mother actually had to wait for 2 hours because of a delay because the defendant was taking a final) after having to drop out because of this, yes please, how much is that an hour?
In the end, the sentence handed down was: A 2-year prison term that was suspended, 365 days in county jail, 3 years’ probation in which if she were to violate probation, the 2-year prison term would go into effect and various restitution fines. I was disappointed to say the least. I thought a precedent would be set in which I, as well as my family, could move forward with in order to make change in California regarding distracted driving incidents. I say incidents, because they are NOT accidents… if you choose to drive in an unsafe manner, whether that be texting and driving, drunk driving, putting on makeup or really, doing anything other than… DRIVING… it is no longer an accident, you intentionally did such act. That’s my two cents anyways.
The DA told us, as we were leaving, to not be surprised if we saw her out working at a grocery store or along side the road in 2 months. Why, you ask? Because California has a program called SWAP. The Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP) reduces jail overcrowding by providing an alternative to incarceration. She could possibly even get an ankle bracelet and do her 365 days at home. But wait! There’s more! Being who I am, I like to research things, I checked the county booking log that day. Her court release date on her booking was dated 6 months from the date of incarceration. I’m no math whiz, however, I know 6 months does not equal 365 days. California automatically assess “good time” or “half time/work time” credits. So, there you have it… in California, you can text and drive and kill someone, put families through hell, and quite possibly do very little time. What we are left with is the knowledge that she will have to check that box on any application that asks… Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Yes… yes, she has.
Lastly, I’d like to mention that the DA in this case did a phenomenal job trying this case. He was always available for questions and concerns. We felt he went above and beyond, not only in the professional way he presented and tried the case, but also in the fact that he took it upon himself to take a Vehicular Manslaughter class to have an even better understanding. We felt that he was invested in this case and well, after 3 years, I guess he would be. We will forever be grateful to him. Our plan going forward is to continue to fight for stricter laws regarding distracted driving in California.
Article contributed by Shauna Judnich