AUBURN — A 21-year—0ld man who fled the scene of a fatal 2006 motor vehicle accident was granted youthful offender status during his sentencing in Cayuga County Court Thursday despite pleas for a harsher penalty from the victim’s family and friends.
Monroe County judge Thomas M. VanStrydonck, who presided over the case, said his job was not to give out retribution on behalf of Timothy Hutchings’ family, but to ensure a fair punishment was given to the defendant who was responsible for the 19 year old’s death.
VanStrydonck, who oversees all the courts in New York state’s judicial district, which includes Cayuga County, took over the case after Cayuga County Judge Mark Fandrich recused himself.
“There are some here who have said that sentencing (him) less than the maximum allowed would devalue Tim’s life?” VanStrydonck said. “Let me emphasize that no sentence handed down today is a measure of Tim’s life. It is expecting too much from the sentencing process and may devalue Tim’s life on its own .”
VanStrydonck also sentenced the driver to 60days in the Cayuga County jail with five years of probation.
The Citizen does not identify defendants who have been granted youthful offender status. Youthful offender status seals a defendant’s criminal proceeding, effectively expunging a conviction from their record.
The driver, who was 18 at the time of the accident, was promised youthful offender status when he pleaded guilty on June 5 to criminally negligent homicide and leaving the scene of a fatal motor vehicle accident without reporting, both felonies,as well as the vehicle and traffic infractions of an unlicensed operator, speed not reasonable and prudent, and failure to keep right.
During his allocution, the man admitted to driving a sport utility vehicle after drinking alcoholic beverages at a party Sept.2, 2006. He also admitted to driving on Sand Beach Road in Fleming at speeds higher than what was reasonable that night.
Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann said that according to a medical examiner’s report, Hutchings, who was a passenger in the defendant’s vehicle, could have been alive for up to an hour after the accident, and could have survived with immediate medical attention.
Budelmann said the accident happened at approximately 2:30 a.m., and that the defendant made at least six phone calls within the next hour. None of those calls were to police or emergency responders.
The accident was not discovered until 7 a.m., Budelmann said.
Budehnann requested a 1.3 to four-year prison sentence without youthful offender status in light of the defendant’s actions.“Is it fair to shield (the defendant) from his conduct when nothing will shield Mr. and Mrs. Hutchings from their pain?” Budelmann asked the judge.
“He made selfish decisions all night … He left a seriously injured friend behind to die.”
Sal Piemonte, the driver’s defense attorney, refuted Budelmann’s claim and said there was little that could have been done to save the victim’s life.
“In all due respect, that is not the truth,” Piemonte said of Budelmann’s comments. “Mr. Budelmann and (former Cayuga County District Attorney James) Vargason both have in their files the medical examiner’s report that clearly opines that Mr. Hutchings may have survived for a few minutes, if at all. The sooner we all come to grips with that, the sooner we can heal.”
Before VanStrydonck issued his sentence, the victim’s mother, Wendy Hutchings, addressed the driver as he wiped away tears and shifted his gaze back-and-forth between herself and a nearby table.
“What do I say to the person who killed my son?” a tearful and sobbing Hutchings said. “All I want to know is why, why, why did you leave the scene? I see a little remorse now, is it because you’re looking at me?”
The defendant continued to wipe away tears onto his shirt or jeans as he spoke to the family.
“I know that nothing I can say will ever help you get over this,” the defendant said. “You guys I think about every day. I feel horrible for what has happened. I really do from my heart. If I could take it back, I would in a second. I truly mean that.”
Richard Luciani, a sentencing specialist who prepared a court pre-sentencing report on behalf of the driver, said he believed the defendant was truly remorseful for his actions.
After the accident, Luciani said the defendant moved to Albany and sought counseling for post traumatic stress-like symptoms associated with knowing he caused his friend’s death.
In preparing his court report, Luciani said he showed the defendant had no prior criminal record, acquired his General Equivalency Diploma in 2007 and enrolled into Hudson Valley Community College, volunteered at the Albany-area YMCA and interned at an Albany-area broadcasting company as he attempted to rebuild his life.
Several business and education professionals also vouched for the defendant’s potential to be a productive member of society, Luciani said.
“People put their reputation at stake for (the defendant), and that says a lot about his character,” Luciani said. “The strong prospect of rehabilitation was key to receiving youthful offender. … The judge could have cut the pie and denied youthful offender status and still given 60 days in jail, but the big picture is that (he) proved himself in the eyes of the court.” While he did go against Budelmann’s request, VanStrydonck was quick to point out the severity of the driver’s actions.
“While cowardly acts are not necessarily the acts of a true coward, the defendant will have to live his life knowing he did not do right by his friend,” he said.
Richard Luciani — New York Sentencing & Parole Advocacy — email@example.com — 315-243-9211