Crash victims recalled at sentencing

Drunken driver gets 5 years

Hundreds grieve as families describe lives torn apart by Severna Park crash that killed 2 teens

March 03, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

As more than 300 people watched and wept, an Annapolis woman was sentenced yesterday to five years in prison for killing two teenagers when she drove drunk and crashed her speeding pickup truck into the rear of the youths' car, which was stopped at a red light.

Linda Lee Nichols, 47, an auto insurance adjuster, was also ordered by Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Michael E. Loney to serve three years of supervised probation after prison.

Killed in the fiery Aug. 20 crash in Severna Park were 16-year-olds Kevin Durm and David Snyder. Their driver that night, Nicholas Kirby, now 17, was the lone survivor of an Arnold trio of promising youths affectionately called the Three Musketeers.

So many people came to court that in addition to the more than 150 people on benches, 100 people stood, dozens of youths sat in the aisles and 90 more people watched a closed-circuit feed in an adjacent courtroom. Some 300 letters sympathetic to the victims had already arrived, as did many supportive of Nichols.

The emotionally pitched hearing was a somber scene of heartbroken parents and devastated families. Young drivers said they were pained by the loss of friends in a crash caused by an adult who drove with a blood alcohol level at twice the legal limit.

"I know what I did was wrong, and I can't change it," said Nichols, sobbing as she stood next to her attorney at the defense table.

Facing the victims' families, she said, "I need you to know how sorry I am."

There was not a dry eye in the courtroom as Nicholas and the victims' relatives and friends took their turns at a lectern in front of the judge, detailing full family lives shattered by recurrent nightmares and haunted by the inability to protect their loved ones.

George Durm, whose son was killed, pounded the lectern and shook the key chain that was cut off Kevin's neck the night of the crash.

He spoke of seeing his son being kept alive for organ donation, sobbing that he would never forgive Nichols.

Danielle Willis, Kevin's girlfriend, said Kevin's "sunshine and smiles" have given way to tormenting loneliness.

"I am scared, Judge Loney. I am petrified ... of going through the future without Kevin," the 16-year-old said, crying.

Kay Snyder, David's mother, said she could not shed the image of her son lying dead at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where David and Kevin were flown.

"I held him. He was cold, and I know he didn't like to be cold," she said. Her other son, Phillip, said he has lost not just his big brother but his best friend.

Nicholas, who said he has barely had a decent night's sleep since the crash, said David and Kevin had been the people he turned to no matter what. "And now they are not there," he said.

Later, he said he was torn. "I want to be over [my] grief. But I don't want to forget anything," he said.

Gary S. Bernstein, Nichols' lawyer, described his client as "anybody's mother," a charitable person, a soccer mom who raised two children, a woman who helped care for her friends' dying spouses, a person who never had so much as a traffic ticket. At the time of the crash, she was getting divorced and helping her daughter, who previously had delivered stillborn twins, through a difficult pregnancy, he said.

Now, in therapy and attending Alcoholics Anonymous, she cries herself to sleep, he wrote in court papers.

"She lives in a special place in hell that's reserved for people who've done what she's done," he said yesterday.

Nichols contacted the boys' families, as well as Danielle, to express remorse.

Urging a long sentence, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee reiterated what has become a sore point. He noted that a classmate of one boy tried to get the youths out of the burning car and contended Nichols did nothing to help.

"And while these young men were finding the strength to help amid the agonizing chaos, what do we know that Linda Nichols is doing? She's off to the 7-Eleven to get a pack of gum." Prosecutors maintained she also called her daughter for a ride home.

But Bernstein said that was not so. She went to the car to help, he said, but others were there. She then went to the store to get help and called her daughter. She said "pick up, pick up," to an answering machine, and was not asking to be picked up, he said. She did not go to buy gum.

Loney told Nichols that he believed she did not intend any harm and must be held accountable for "a terrible mistake." Nichols had pleaded guilty in January to two counts of manslaughter.

The victims' families later said they respected the concurrent sentences Loney handed down - eight years, with three of them suspended, plus probation.

Leslie Thomas, a former executive director of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter for Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, said, "Five years probably would be more than the norm, but not by much."

The maximum sentence for automobile manslaughter is 10 years in prison.

The youths had gone to a fast-food restaurant. Nichols was heading home from a friend's birthday party. Prosecutors have said that her blood alcohol level was .16 percent when she crashed her truck at an estimated 55 mph to 57 mph - at least 10 mph over the speed limit - without braking, into the car containing the three teenagers.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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