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Sentinel: Drivers who hit pedestrians often get little or no jail time

(Part of the Orlando Sentinel series, Blood in the Streets)

Anguish turned to anger for Bobby Stout’s mother and sister in April, when an Orange County circuit judge decided the woman who ran him down on a sidewalk two years ago would not get any jail time.

“When you killed our Bobby, you took an innocent,” sister Penny Stout, 49, said to the driver during an April 12 sentencing hearing. “Orlando is No. 1 in pedestrian deaths in the nation. It’s as if we say, ‘Come to Orlando, get drunk, kill: Nothing will happen to you.'”

The sentence of house arrest plus probation for Natalie T. Houle, who killed Stout, isn’t unusual in Central Florida. Drivers who hit pedestrians usually receive little or no jail time, the Orlando Sentinel found after reviewing 54 criminal driving cases in Orange, Lake, Seminole and Osceola counties.

“The sentences are horrendous,” said pedestrian advocate Jamie McWilliams, 52, of Ocoee, who lost son Justin in a 2002 hit-and-run pedestrian crash. She successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature in 2006 for a tougher law, the Justin McWilliams Act, which stiffened penalties for hit-and-run. “It really screams, ‘We don’t care about your loved one.'”

From 2007 through 2012, 5,700 pedestrians have been struck in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties, including 333 who were killed and 889 who suffered what police call “incapacitating injuries.”

In the vast majority involving deaths or incapacitating injuries, pedestrians were found at fault: They walked into traffic.

But in one of every five cases, police thought the drivers were at least partially at fault, according to an Orlando Sentinel review.

Most at-fault drivers — almost eight of every 10 — got traffic tickets: for speeding, running red lights, failure to yield or, most commonly, careless driving, which has a $166 fine. Unless there are unusual circumstances, there are no additional legal penalties for the careless driver who hits a pedestrian, even if the person dies.

Plea deals

The Sentinel identified 54 drivers charged with criminal driving offenses after seriously injuring or killing pedestrians in Central Florida since 2007.

Eleven drivers got more than a year and up to 10 years in prison. An additional four got one year in jail.

Most of them had prior criminal records or aggravating circumstances. For example, Donald R. Anderson, now 51, of Orlando already had a prison record in November 2010 when he drove his car around an officer directing traffic and onto a crowded sidewalk on Tampa Avenue, striking and seriously injuring a woman. He then led police on a high-speed chase. He got 10 years.

An additional three drivers got one to five months in jail, and six others got a few days in jail, usually with probation.

At least six of those who got jail or prison time had initially received plea deals that required no incarceration. But they wound up violating probation and were put behind bars for that.

Ten drivers cut plea deals for probation, sometimes with home confinement or work-release confinement, but avoided jail time.

With 15 other drivers, state attorneys declined to prosecute or dropped charges before they went to juries.

Five more cases are pending in court.

State Attorney Jeff Ashton of the 9th Judicial Circuit, for Orange and Osceola counties, would not discuss specific cases but defended prosecutions and plea deals as realistic in pedestrian crashes.

“You look at not only what the law says but how a jury will interpret,” said Ashton, who took office in January.

“It’s tragic. But tragedy does not necessarily always dictate what the justice should be,” he added.

‘Road debris’

Early one morning in June 2008, a passer-by called 911 about a man lying broken and bleeding in the center turn lane of Colonial Drive near Partlow Drive. Whoever hit him was gone, but there were car parts, including a piece of bumper and a side-view mirror, both from a gray Ford.

“He doesn’t look good at all,” the passer-by told the 911 operator.

Russell W. Inman, 60, who was homeless, died an hour later.

Later that morning Paul R. Kashuk Jr., now 42, of Winter Garden came to the Winter Garden police station to fill out a crash report — for a gray Ford Thunderbird. He told police he had gone to some bars the night before, and on his way home he thought he hit some road debris. He did not know it was serious until he saw his car damage in the morning.

The police took one look at his car — missing part of the bumper and a side-view mirror — and realized it was the one they were looking for. They charged him with driving under the influence with manslaughter, hit-and-run with death and vehicular homicide, all felonies. But a blood test taken many hours after the crash came up negative for alcohol.

In a plea deal, Kashuk pleaded no contest to vehicular homicide. He accepted one day in jail, plus six years of probation, which was lifted after three years.

Kashuk told the Sentinel he wasn’t drunk when he hit Inman, but he was unalert and unaware.

“I thought I ran over a piece of road debris. I drive Colonial all the time, and I see road debris on it constantly,” he said.

Kashuk said when police told him what really happened, he had immediate thoughts of suicide. He has been tormented by guilt, depression and self-loathing ever since.

“Maybe putting me in jail could have been” better for him, he said. “But that part [the self-torment] alone is more punishment than I would wish upon anybody. To live with that, that’s something that would never go away.”

Drunk but ‘fine’

Sorting blame is always an issue. Early one morning in August 2011, Jeffrey Brian, 39, of Orlando was struck and killed while walking on Universal Boulevard. He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.20, while the driver, Rickie Lee Maiorano, now 31, of Orlando, had a level of 0.12, according to state records. State law says 0.08 is too drunk to drive.

The Florida Highway Patrol investigators concluded Brian should not have been in the road. Rather than charge Maiorano with felony DUI with manslaughter, they charged her with misdemeanor DUI.

In a plea deal, Maiorano got six months of work release: locked down at night, free to work during the day. She and her attorney would not comment.

“There was a time when the negligence of a victim in a DUI manslaughter case was not considered relevant. If you were driving drunk and someone died, you were responsible,” Ashton said. “It changed … it opened up the argument that, ‘I’m drunk, but I’m driving fine.'”

It’s frustrating for some.

“Drunk driving is drunk driving,” said Yolanda Larson, executive director of the Central Florida affiliate of MADD. “If they weren’t impaired, they would have been conscious of someone crossing the street.”

For more than two years, parents Jessica Rodriguez and George Torres have been waiting for the man who hit their teenage sons to face drunken-driving manslaughter charges in court.

Anthony Rodriguez, who had just turned 15, and his brother Miguel, who would soon turn 16, were standing at the bus stop when driver Eric James Wydra, 32, veered off the roadway, striking both boys and leaving them bloodied in a ditch along Valencia College Lane.

“He’s never going to be there, so you don’t know what kind of man he is going to be or what he would’ve been or was he going to accomplish everything,” Rodriguez said about Anthony. “I don’t know, and I’m never going to know.”

Wydra fled and drove to a Publix after the crash, where a firefighter spotted the damage to his Pontiac and alerted troopers.

The trial date, July 15, has been pushed back so many times, Rodriguez and Torres can hardly fathom what another delay might do to their rage.

Hit-and-run cases occurred in one of every nine pedestrian deaths reviewed by the Sentinel.

‘Grace of God’

For the Stout family, having its day in court didn’t offer any closure.

In the April court hearing, Stout’s mother, Lucille Stout, told the judge she was angry prosecutors had bargained away DUI-manslaughter charges against driver Houle, now 25, and her then-boyfriend, Travis J. Main, now 27, who allegedly grabbed the steering wheel at the fateful moment.

“If you are parents, you will understand why I feel this way,” Stout said.

Neither Houle nor Main would comment to the Sentinel. But in her statement to the court, Houle declared, “I am truly sorry. … I cannot change again what happened that night, but I wish I had taken a taxi or called a friend to come pick us up. I learned that the smallest decision can change so many lives.”

Added Main in his statement: “I will not forgive myself for what has happened.”

Each accepted a year of house arrest and 15 years of probation.

Not all of the Stout family shared the call for harsher punishment. Sister-in-law Renee Stout, 49, of Oviedo said she feared almost anyone is capable of stupid, youthful mistakes, including drunken driving, and of taking someone’s life with a terrible moment of carelessness behind the wheel.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” she said.





Original article in the Orlando Sentinel