No prison in distracted driving crash

Article subtitle: 
Couple get probation in fatal wreck that killed Eugene man
Article author: 
By Bennett Hall
Article publisher:
Article date: 
Monday, December 17, 2012
Article category: 
Article Body: 

A couple who pleaded guilty to various charges in connection with a distracted driving crash that killed a motorcyclist were sentenced to three years’ probation on Friday in Benton County Circuit Court, but they remained in custody awaiting possible deportation.

Veronica Avila Diaz, 28, and her husband, Jose Antonio Cejas Gutierrez, 31, have been in jail since Oct. 11 on charges stemming from a Sept. 30 collision that took the life of a 72-year-old Eugene man, Kenneth Douglas Carroll.

The wreck occurred on Highway 99W north of Monroe. Avila Diaz, who had little driving experience and no license, was behind the wheel of the couple’s Ford Windstar van, with her husband in the passenger’s seat and their three children riding with them.

According to the account presented in court, she was distracted by Cejas Gutierrez, who was photographing his wife with his camera phone as she drove south toward Monroe.

She started to drift off the road and then overcorrected, veering into oncoming traffic. The van struck Carroll’s motorcycle, killing him. A third vehicle, with three people inside, swerved off the road to avoid the wreck.

“Jose was taking video of her driving, asking her to look at him,” prosecutor Shani Krumholz said in court on Friday. “The last shot that was taken prior to her hitting the shoulder is a shot of her looking directly at the camera.”

In a plea bargain negotiated with the Benton County District Attorney’s Office, Avila Diaz pleaded guilty on Friday to a single felony count of criminally negligent homicide. Six misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment, related to the other people involved in the crash, were dismissed along with a charge of reckless driving.

Cejas Gutierrez pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution, also a felony, and four misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment.

Emotions ran high in the packed courtroom during the sentencing portion of the hearing, when the victim’s relatives and the defendants had a chance to speak.

“Even though my dad was 72 years old, he had at least 20 years left in his life, which was taken prematurely by some people’s really stupid decisions,” said Kelly Carroll, the dead man’s daughter. Pausing frequently as she fought back tears, Carroll described her father as a loving parent, devoted grandparent and dedicated community volunteer.

Her brother, Brad, described his dad as “a really incredible man” and said his death had “left a void in my life.”

Both asked Judge Locke Williams to impose prison time.

The defendants, dressed in striped jail jumpsuits and shackled hand and foot, asked for forgiveness.

Speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Avila Diaz turned to face Carroll’s relatives in the gallery.

“I want to tell the family who’s here that I’m very sorry,” she said in a small voice. “I would not have ever intentionally taken anybody’s life or hurt anybody. I’m really, really sorry.”

Williams called the crash a tragedy caused by “a horrendously stupid act that, unfortunately, in this day and age with cellphones, people do each and every day.”

However, citing the defendants’ lack of criminal history, he declined to send them to prison. Instead, he ordered the couple to serve three years’ probation on the felony counts and imposed sentences of 30 to 60 days on the lesser charges, which were satisfied by the time served since their arrest.

He ordered Avila Diaz to pay $18,198.78 in restitution, fines and fees and ruled she could not hold a driver’s license for one year. Cejas Gutierrez was required to pay $18,598.78 and had his license suspended for 90 days.

“It’s always a difficult balance of just punishment, retribution and what’s appropriate in each individual case,” he said. “There is no good solution in this case.”

Avila Diaz was represented by Nicolas Ortiz. Cejas Gutierrez was represented by Karen Zorn.

The couple, who came to the United States from Mexico about nine years ago, were being held by order of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pending further proceedings on their immigration status.

Kelly Carroll, the victim’s daughter, said she was bitterly disappointed that the defendants will not see prison time. Deporting them to their home country, she said, would be like punishing two naughty children by sending them to their room.

“This is just a travesty of justice,” she said after the hearing. “There is no justice here.”