Man gets 22 months in fatal traffic accident

March 18, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

A Reisterstown dump truck driver was sentenced to nearly two years in prison yesterday for charges related to an April 1993 accident that killed a Columbia woman and severely injured her 12-year-old son.

Gary Bernstein, 37, now of Reisterstown but a resident of Finksburg at the time of the accident, was given the maximum sentence of 22 months in jail and $4,560 in fines for 10 traffic charges during a hearing in Howard District Court.

Suzanne Denise Bice, 43, was killed instantly when her Subaru was rammed by Bernstein's 65,230-pound dump truck after he ran a red light on Route 175 at Thunder Hill Road in Columbia.

Her son, Phillip, a passenger in the car, was in a coma for a month after the April 29 crash.

Bernstein's dump truck -- loaded with stone -- also collided with two other vehicles, whose drivers were not seriously injured, before it crashed through a guardrail and stopped. Witnesses say he was traveling about 50 mph, which is the speed limit on Route 175.

Police investigators learned after the accident that Bernstein was operating the truck with a license with his picture and his brother's name. His own license had been revoked for numerous traffic violations.

"This will never leave me," Bernstein said. "It will be in my heart for the rest of my life."

Judge R. Russell Sadler gave Bernstein the maximum sentence for driving with a revoked license, making false statements to police, displaying a fictitious license, obtaining a license by misrepresentation, running a red light, failing to control speed to avoid an accident, carrying an uncovered load, operating an unsafe vehicle, failing to drive to the right of the center line and negligent driving.

"This is the one case that I've had . . . that the legislative sanctions to their extreme are justified," Judge Sadler told Bernstein. "I can't give you any sympathy."

Bernstein was found not guilty of a more serious charge, manslaughter, after a District Court trial before Judge Sadler in November. He could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison had he been convicted of manslaughter.

The Bice family is seeking $50 million in damages in a civil lawsuit filed against Bernstein and his wife, Martine Metz Bernstein, who is listed as the truck's owner. The case is scheduled for a Howard Circuit Court trial in July.

During yesterday's hearing, Mrs. Bice's husband, Stephen Bice, read an emotional statement in which he criticized Judge Sadler for not convicting Bernstein of the manslaughter charge.

Mr. Bice questioned how the judge could believe Bernstein's story that he did all he could to stop his truck and avoid the accident when Bernstein lied to state officials to obtain a driver's license.

"I am mystified by your verdict," Mr. Bice told the judge.

Mr. Bice, choking back tears, went on to tell Judge Sadler how his family has agonized over his wife's death and the serious injuries of their son since the accident.

He described how he inspected the remains of Mrs. Bice's Subaru after the collision, removing a bent key from the car's ignition -- still in the on position -- so that he could keep his wife's key chain.

Upon looking at the car, Mr. Bice said, he "tried to imagine the terror she must have felt. I wonder if she and Mr. Bernstein ever made eye contact."

Mr. Bice also described the days and nights he spent at his son's hospital bedside, not wanting to leave the boy's side for fear he would die without ever coming out of his coma.

He explained that he is thankful Philip is alive, but he fears that his son's severe brain injury will leave him with long-term psychological and emotional problems.

"Philip is a constant reminder to me that joy and despair are the two sides of the same coin," he said.

rTC Mr. Bice thanked his relatives, friends, neighbors and strangers for the kindness they showed his family since the accident. He said he even prays for Bernstein, although he is unable to forgive him.

"I have yet to piece together the shattered remnants of my family's life," Mr. Bice said. "None of us are safe as long as [Bernstein] is free to act on his own volition."

Thomas Morrow, a Towson attorney representing Bernstein, asked Judge Sadler to set aside emotions when sentencing his client. Mr. Morrow suggested that Bernstein be given an 18-month sentence so he would be eligible for work release and could support his family.

But Assistant State's Attorney Gary Wiessner argued for a stiff sentence, pointing to Bernstein's lengthy record of drunken driving, shoplifting, burglary, drug possession, assault and battery.

"Mr. Bernstein has exhibited that he will do anything to get around the requirements of the law, as he has shown in this case," the prosecutor said.

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