ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Before sentencing the young woman who in a split second of driver inattention forever impaired a once-active pedestrian, state District Judge Benjamin Chavez sighed and said what everyone on either side of the courtroom likely agreed with:
“There is no fairness in what occurred.”
Nothing that has happened to Kerry Houlihan, the aforementioned active pedestrian, has been fair since Feb. 9, 2017, when she took her dog for a walk and was struck from behind by driver Marian Kelly Cobbett, whose 2004 Toyota left the road, jumped a curb, slammed into Houlihan and dragged her broken body several feet.
Nothing the judge could do Thursday could make that fair. No sentence he could impose could make Cobbett a better driver or turn Houlihan, 42, back into an active pedestrian – or a pedestrian of any sort, given that her left leg was torn off below the knee in the crash and that she is unable to control any part of her body save for her right thumb, face and most of her mind.
What the judge was left with was sentencing Cobbett, who turns 26 next week, to the maximum the law allows – 90 days in jail, and perhaps not even that if the Metropolitan Detention Center finds that house arrest is necessary for her safety.
So far, it hasn’t found that.
A restitution hearing is scheduled for Jan. 30.
Many of you have followed Houlihan’s story in this column, the ordeal she has faced and still faces since being mowed down on a sidewalk at Comanche near Inca NE.
You know that an Albuquerque police report noted that two witnesses said Cobbett was texting on her cellphone just before the crash, although Cobbett said she was fiddling with the radio.
“Cell phone, driver inattention” was listed as causes for the crash.
Houlihan nearly died. Cobbett walked away with not so much as a ticket.
That changed when I – and many of you – contacted the District Attorney’s Office. On Feb. 5, just four days shy of a year since the crash, a grand jury indicted Cobbett on a charge of great bodily injury by vehicle/reckless driving, a felony.
Then, in October, the charge was reduced to careless driving, a misdemeanor, to which Cobbett pleaded guilty. That, because prosecutors could not prove that Cobbett had been texting.
Cellphone records showed no data usage, including texting, for seven minutes before the crash, and the two witnesses’ statements were found to be inconsistent.
Without that evidence and no proof that Cobbett was speeding or impaired, the case did not rise to the standards of reckless driving.
Which is to say that Cobbett was inattentive, but not intentionally driving with reckless disregard, no matter how catastrophic the results were to Houlihan.
“She did not go out to harm,” Judge Chavez said Thursday. “But her actions caused the greatest harm.”
Houlihan’s friends were not satisfied with that. They bombarded the judge with numerous letters, packed the courtroom Thursday. Six of them spoke, sometimes tearfully, about how unfair the crash and its consequences were to a woman who had been vibrant, athletic and a meaningful member of the community.
“Nothing can bring back Kerry’s legs, arms or her old life,” said Karen Sheff, a former colleague of Houlihan’s at Indian Health Services. “But I sincerely hope the person who caused this horrible accident and ripped Kerry’s life apart will be held accountable in some meaningful way.”
They asked the judge to order restitution, revoke Cobbett’s driver’s license, force her to do community service with disabled people to get a sense of what she had done to their friend. They asked him to impose a lengthy sentence that would send a message about the dangers of driving inattentively, whether that was the result of texting or toggling a radio dial.
Assistant District Attorney David Murphy asked for the maximum 90 days, calling the crash a tragedy. Defense attorney Terri Keller asked the judge to consider house arrest, calling the crash an accident that could happen to anyone.
Houlihan asked the judge to impose the maximum penalty “so that she can know how humiliating it is to have other people see her naked body as she showers, something that I have had to deal with for almost two years.”
Before Cobbett was led away in handcuffs, she asked for forgiveness.
“I do accept full responsibility,” she said, looking at Houlihan, the first time they have seen each other. “I hope that one day you can start to forgive me, because it was an accident. This accident tortures me every day, but not like anything you’re going through.”
But, on Thursday, forgiveness was not yet in evidence, fairness still out of reach.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.