Parents of victim ask judge for mercy

No jail time for fatal drunken-driving crash at request of dead man's family

May 24, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

The parents stood before a Baltimore judge yesterday and tearfully, passionately argued that the young man who killed their son should not go to jail.

"He's a very good person," the victim's mother, Patricia Stoffel, said of the defendant. "He made a terrible mistake, and I know that he is deeply, deeply sorry for what happened."

It was a horrific accident -- one that followed a night of drinking beer and shots of alcohol at a Federal Hill bar in December. The Jeep Wrangler slid on a curve of northbound Interstate 83. A fence pole pierced the windshield. Matthew Stoffel, 23, was impaled through the face and neck.

Stoffel's best friend and former Johns Hopkins University lacrosse teammate, Gregory Raymond, had been behind the wheel.

The two were as close as brothers, Raymond's father said, and Raymond cradled Stoffel for 25 minutes after the accident as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Raymond, 23, pleaded guilty in February to driving while intoxicated, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail. Largely at the Stoffel family's request, prosecutors spared Raymond more serious charges, such as vehicular homicide, that carry long prison terms. The prosecutor was asking for 90 days. Yesterday was Raymond's sentencing hearing.

District Judge H. Gary Bass listened as the parents of the victim joined the parents of the defendant in their pleas for mercy.

When the judge announced his decision to sentence Raymond to two years of probation and 250 hours of community service, he said this to the Stoffels:

"I just don't want them to suffer any more. And they say they'll suffer if he goes to jail."

Bass asked: If a judge can abide by a victim's family's wishes that a defendant serve more jail time -- the more typical courtroom scenario -- why, too, can't a judge give credence to a family's wishes for less?

An official with Mothers Against Drunk Driving said she thought the judge would not have hesitated to impose jail time if the victim had been a stranger to the driver. That discrepancy, she said, is wrong.

"A life is a life, and all life is precious," said Nancy Kelly, the Maryland public policy liaison for MADD. "There needs to be a consequence for an action. Some type of stiff judicial outcome sends a message to other people that this is a serious thing, and it will be dealt with seriously."

Still, Kelly said, she has compassion for both families and realizes that Raymond is "walking in both shoes," as the driver and as a sort of victim.

A week after the Dec. 11 accident, Gregory Raymond had "21" tattooed on his chest. It was Stoffel's number when he played for the Johns Hopkins Blue Jays from 2001 to 2004.

Stoffel played as a reserve defenseman -- never a star, coaches said, but always an enthusiastic team player. Raymond, No. 33, was the top long-stick midfielder last year when the team went undefeated and won the NCAA championship.

Raymond -- now an assistant men's lacrosse coach at Princeton University -- was a Hopkins team co-captain for three years, something no one else has done in the 123-year history of the team, Hopkins associate head coach Seth Tierney said at yesterday's hearing.

"There's a reason for that," he said.

The Blue Jays' motto is, "It's family," and the team dedicated its season to Stoffel's memory. Players wore his initials on their helmets and "21" on their jerseys.

Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala spoke at Stoffel's funeral in December. Glynn Stoffel, Matt's father, spoke to the Hopkins players at the beginning of the season, reminding them of the team's sense of family.

This past weekend, both Princeton and Johns Hopkins were eliminated from the quarterfinals, ending their seasons.

Gregory Raymond's strong voice wavered as he made his short statement to the judge. He said he was a very fortunate young man, that he had a loving family and a large number of friends who care about him. "Matt was the best of those," he said.

He said there was no way to express the remorse and regret he felt -- or to take back what happened that night.

"I feel very responsible, and I take full responsibility."

Raymond must devote half of his 250 hours of community service to speaking to Hopkins students about the dangers of drinking and driving, the judge ordered.

When it came his turn at the court hearing, Larry Raymond thanked his son's lacrosse families at Hopkins and Princeton for their support. And he thanked the Stoffels.

"There is power and warmth in faith and forgiveness," he said. "They've shared that with us in abundance."

A letter to Bass that the Stoffels submitted in March shows the depths of their compassion for Raymond.

"We currently are suffering through a great sorrow and we are very angry," the letter reads. "But our anger is not directed at Greg Raymond, the driver of the vehicle in which our son died, but at both of the boys who should have known better.

"Greg and Matt were best friends -- Greg driving that night was a joint decision they made based on the foolishness of youth. That foolishness not only cost us a son, but also cost Greg his best friend."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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