In an emotional courtroom sentencing that would have served well as an anti-drunken driving message, 20-year-old Jason G. Zerr received 15 months in prison yesterday for the death of a Glen Burnie teen lastFebruary.
Before being sentenced by Judge Martin A. Wolff, Zerr, of Millersville, held a legal pad with trembling hand and read a lengthy statement, parts of it inaudible over his sobs.
He told of waking up with nightmares almost every night for weeksfollowing the accident and how he often wished he had died in the crash instead of 16-year-old Amy Lorraine Riedel.
"Many times I thought it should be me and not Amy. She had no control over what happened," said Zerr, who was driving on Shetlands Lane near Old Mill High School in Millersville when he lost control on a curve and crashed into a tree. Riedel, who was a passenger, was killed; Zerr and another teen-ager were seriously injured.
"It hurts to know how much you'vedestroyed your own family and the Riedels," said Zerr, turning to look at the young woman's relatives.
During the hour-long sentencing, Timothy Zerr, Zerr's father, also spoke to the court in a shaky voice.
"I remember the night I got the phone call," he said. "When I found out there was a death involved, I felt anger, I felt betrayed, I even felt a little hate for Jason."
Then, breaking down, he said: "He's my son. He's never intentionally hurt anyone. We're both verysorry for the Riedels."
In the crowded courtroom, friends and family of Zerr sat on one side of the courtroom; friends and family of Riedel on the other.
After the sentencing, one of Riedels' relatives bolted to the other side, holding up a color photograph of the young woman.
"Look at her, look at her," she shouted, waving the photograph of the blond teen-ager. "You didn't know her. Amy was 16 years old. There's an empty chair for her now."
After a three-day trial last fall, Zerr was convicted of automobile manslaughter, said his attorney, J. Michael Wachs. Zerr's blood alcohol content at the time ofthe accident was .08, he said. In Maryland, driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher is illegal for adults. For Zerr, who was a minor, it was illegal for him to drink at all.
Wachs said the speed at which Zerr was driving that night -- 57 mph in a 25 mph zone-- was a primary factor in the accident.
Wachs had asked that Zerr be placed on house arrest, pay restitution for funeral expenses, forfeit his driving privilege and do extensive community service.
"Jason is the most remorseful person I've ever seen," Wachs said. "I don't think society needs to be protected from Jason Zerr."
Wachs added that Zerr "has been shunned" by many people in his Millersville community and suffers ongoing anxiety due to the accident.
Zerr, a clean-cut young man wearing a crisp, white shirt and black pants, washappy and likable as a boy, involved with Boy Scouts and church activities, his attorney said. When he was 10 years old, his parents divorced, and Zerr soon began using alcohol and illegal drugs.
"Jason was used as a pawn" during the divorce, Wachs told the judge. "He didsuffer, and he did go off-track."
In 1990, while living in Kentucky, Zerr was convicted of trespassing and breaking and entering. He served two months in jail in Lexington, his attorney said.
Assistant State's Attorney William Roessler, saying Zerr obviously learned nothing from his previous incarceration, asked for a jail term of six months to two years, and then a period of supervised probation.
"Hehas been breaking the law since age 13," Roessler said. "His prognosis for rehabilitation has to be questionable.
"House arrest sends the wrong message to teen-agers," he added. "He has shown he is a serious threat to society."
Judge Wolff, before rendering his sentence, said he had gone through "stacks" of letters from friends and relatives from both sides of the case.
"Society will just not toleratedrinking and driving," he said, adding he had to "balance out the demands of society and what will help the defendant."
"I believe Jason is extremely remorseful," he said. But, the judge added, he was not "a firm believer" in house arrest.
Instead, he sentenced Zerr tofive years, suspending all but 15 months. He will allow Zerr to retain his job as a fork-lift operator during the day and report back to the Anne Arundel County Detention Center each night.
He also ordered four years probation, three of which must be supervised; 400 hoursof community service and two Alcohol Anonymous meetings each week after his release. He also required that Zerr, who has a 10th-grade education, obtain his high school-equivalency diploma.