Wiping tears from her eyes, Lazara Arellano de Hogue apologized yesterday and begged for forgiveness from the parents of a child who was dragged to death beneath her pickup truck nearly a year ago.
"From the first time I was told what happened, it has hurt me a lot because it's like he was a child of my own," the woman said through a Spanish-speaking interpreter at her sentencing hearing. "I want to go to the cemetery - to go on my knees to the grave to ask the child to forgive me."
Relatives of 3-year-old Elijah Cozart expressed outrage at the request.
"I was insulted," Donna Cozart, the toddler's aunt, said outside the courthouse. "She put him in that grave, so I was insulted."
The defendant's comments came during an emotionally wrenching three-hour hearing that ended with Baltimore County Circuit Judge John O. Hennegan's decision to sentence the woman to 10 years in prison.
Marjorie Thomas, who was pushing her grandson in a stroller across Goucher Boulevard in the Towson area Dec. 1 when the crash occurred, repeatedly fled the courtroom yesterday morning in tears.
Kevin Cozart, the boy's father, expressed regret that he turned down Elijah's request to go with him to his baby sister's doctor's appointment that afternoon.
"I said no because he was not ready, and we were already late," Cozart told the judge, recalling that his son had been playful and wiggling his bare toes when he asked to go. "I wish I could go back in time and take both Elijah and Marjorie with me."
And a Catholic priest who has known Arellano de Hogue for two years described her as a prayerful woman who was so cautious about driving that she had both of her family's vehicles blessed before a three-week trip to her native Mexico in July last year.
Arellano de Hogue, 41, was convicted this month of vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run charges for failing to stop last December after hitting the grandmother and the stroller.
With the baby carriage jammed in the well of the front passenger-side wheel, the boy was dragged nearly a mile before Arellano de Hogue's truck crashed on a side street, dislodging the child's body.
Witnesses who saw the initial accident testified that they honked at the driver, pointed and hollered out their car windows that there was a stroller stuck beneath her vehicle.
Other witnesses told the judge that the carriage was lodged so tightly that one front wheel locked up and stopped rotating, and that the scraping and screeching noises it made could be heard even after the truck was out of sight.
At the end of a six-day trial, Hennegan found that Arellano de Hogue should have known that a stroller was stuck under her truck, and that a child could be strapped inside. Noting that an autopsy revealed that the boy's fatal injuries were caused by being dragged rather than the impact of the initial crash, Hennegan pointed out that the toddler would likely still be alive if the driver had stopped.
The eldest of nine children, Arellano de Hogue grew up in a small Mexican village with no running water and left school after the third or fourth grade to help raise her siblings, defense attorney Ricardo D. Zwaig told the judge.
After "being victimized" as a teenager, she moved about 25 years ago to the United States, married a man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic and took a job as a housekeeper to support her family, the defense attorney said during the hearing.
He later declined to elaborate on the trauma that his client suffered in Mexico.
Before her arrest in the hit-and-run accident, she had never gotten so much as a traffic ticket, Zwaig said of his client, who had a valid driver's license and is a legal resident of the United States.
The Rev. Charles P. McDonald, an associate pastor at the mostly Spanish-speaking Catholic Community of St. Michael and St. Patrick in Fells Point, testified about the remorse that Arellano de Hogue has expressed to him about Elijah's death.
Telling the judge that she refers to the child by name, he said, "It's not `el nino ' or `el muchacho ' or `el chico.' It's Elijah."
The priest said Arellano de Hogue often asked him to pray for the boy - to write down his name and "put it on the altar so that God can see it." And he said that as a mother of four, she expressed particular sadness for Elijah's mother and her pain.
But in their remarks to the judge, members of the Cozart family questioned how those maternal instincts could not have kicked in after Arellano de Hogue ran down Elijah's grandmother and the stroller carrying the child.
Marsha Cozart said she struggles to explain to her daughter, Kylie, 2, why her brother won't be coming home. "Who can tell me why?" she added.
Prosecutor Allan J. Webster asked the judge to hand down the maximum sentence of 15 years, saying that the case has caused him "to question humanity."
"No matter what anybody says, this case is about selfishness," he said. "If she had concern for anyone but herself, she would have stopped."
In sentencing Arellano de Hogue, the judge said it was not his job to be outraged.
"That's for other people," Hennegan said. "It's my job to be fair and reasonable and responsible in my sentence - and that is always in the eye of the beholder, I guess."
He sentenced her to 10 years on the manslaughter charge and a concurrent five-year term on the hit-and-run charge stemming from the injuries sustained by Elijah's grandmother.
Asked by the defense attorney whether any portion of that prison term would be suspended, Hennegan said no.
"I'm sorry," the judge added. "I'm sorry for everybody."