90 days for crash that in­ca­pac­i­tated pedes­trian

Albuquerque Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Up­Front is a front-page news and opin­ion col­umn. Com­ment di­rectly to Jo­line at 823-3603, [email protected]­nal.com or fol­low her on Twit­ter @jo­linegkg. Go to www.abqjour­nal.com/let­ters/new to sub­mit a let­ter to the ed­i­tor.

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.

GREG SOR­BER/JOUR­NAL

Kerry Houlihan suf­fered cat­a­strophic in­juries when driver Mar­ian Kelly Cob­bett jumped the curb and ran into her on Feb. 9, 2017, as Houlihan walked her dog on the side­walk. Thurs­day’s sen­tenc­ing was the first time Houlihan and Cob­bett have met face to face.

UP­FRONT Jo­line Gu­tier­rez Krueger

GREG SOR­BER/JOUR­NAL

Kerry Houlihan, cen­ter, waits with friends out­side the court­room of state Dis­trict Judge Ben­jamin Chavez be­fore the sen­tenc­ing of the woman whose car struck her, caus­ing ir­repara­ble dam­age.

Mar­ian Kelly Cob­bett

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