Fatal-crash driver is given 10 years

Immigrant was drunk when he hit car carrying couple

May 29, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

William and Trudy Mathews came and went mostly in silence over the months as they attended court hearings for the man accused of killing their son, a Marine home after a tour in Iraq, in a drunken-driving accident.

The Columbia residents kept their feelings behind closed doors, rarely speaking publicly, even when a judge rejected a plea agreement that would have sent the driver, an illegal immigrant, to prison and brought the case to an end.

But outside an Ellicott City courthouse yesterday, the couple expressed the frustration they felt after a judge sentenced the man responsible for their son's death to 10 years in prison.

Trudy Mathews said she was relieved that a chapter was closing but added, "I'm not going to get consolation from this."

Of her son, she said, "It is ironic, because he fought for the system and it failed him."

Howard County Circuit Judge Louis A. Becker yesterday sentenced Eduardo Morales-Soriano to 10 years in prison for the Thanksgiving 2006 crash that killed Cpl. Brian Mathews and his companion Jennifer Bower. The judge said he took into account not only the Laurel man's high blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident but also his status as an illegal immigrant.

The sentencing also completes an unusual legal twist. The 27-year-old defendant's guilty plea to two counts of negligent manslaughter yesterday was his second in the case. In January, Judge Lenore R. Gelfman rejected a plea deal in which Morales-Soriano would have served eight years in prison, despite previously binding herself to the agreement. After that ruling, Gelfman removed herself from presiding over any subsequent matters in the case.

The sentence imposed by Becker exceeds suggested state guidelines for the charges. The judge said he made his decision "primarily because of the high alcohol read." Morales-Soriano's blood-alcohol level was 0.32 percent, four times the legal limit, at the time of the crash, police have said.

Becker said he also considered an unusual facet of the case: Morales-Soriano, a native of Mexico, was living in the country illegally.

"This court cannot ignore that the defendant has violated the law with his illegal presence here," Becker said.

The judge did not elaborate on how Morales-Soriano's immigration status affected the sentencing.

At 10:20 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2006, Bower, 24, stopped the Toyota Corolla that she was driving at a red light at Routes 175 and 108 in Columbia. She and Mathews, 21, were eastbound on Route 175.

The two had been introduced by mutual friends and were on a second date. Mathews had finished eight months of duty in Iraq earlier in the year and was looking forward to leaving the military in June and becoming a teacher. Bower, from Montgomery County, was pursuing a master's degree in psychology.

In his Nissan Sentra, Morales-Soriano slammed into Bower's car, spinning the Corolla around and breaking the windshield, prosecutors said. Witnesses at the scene said that Morales-Soriano stepped out of his car, shaking his head, and sat on a guardrail.

Bower and Mathews were taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where they died.

When police arrived, Morales-Soriano was so intoxicated that he could not stand up straight when an officer attempted to give him a field sobriety test, according to a statement of facts from the county state's attorney's office.

Maryland's criminal sentencing guidelines suggest that, based on his lack of previous criminal and traffic convictions, Morales-Soriano should be sentenced to three months to four years for each manslaughter count. Judges often impose sentences based on the guidelines but are not required to.

Morales-Soriano had been arrested previously on driving-related violations, but prosecutors dropped the charges because of insufficient evidence, Assistant State's Attorney Danielle Duclaux. During yesterday's hearing, Duclaux recommended the maximum sentence of 10 years for each count.

In addition to the 10 years of active prison time, Becker imposed another 10 years that are to be suspended and five years of probation upon release. Authorities have said Morales-Soriano probably will be deported when he completes his sentence.

"It really kind of shows the inadequacies of the system," Howard County State's Attorney Dario Broccolino said after the hearing. "You can't resurrect somebody. That would be justice."

William Mathews said he did not find the sentence sufficient.

"I thought this was going in a good direction," William Mathews said of Gelfman's rejection of the first plea. "I was a little taken aback."

Though he characterized the sentence as "farcical," Mathews said his family "has never been interested in vengeance."

"I feel a great deal of compassion for the defendant," he said. "He's human like the rest of us."

Bower's family did not attend the sentencing, but Becker read aloud excerpts from a victim impact statement from the family.

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