By Ray Stern
The nephew of a woman killed in a Mesa DUI crash persuaded prosecutors and a judge today to cut Savannah Sutherland, whose parents founded Cold Stone Creamery, a break.
As reported in this blog on Wednesday, Sutherland had reached a plea deal in her case two months ago that stipulated five-to-10 years in prison.
But Genovena Tepec-Juarez's nephew appeared at the sentencing this morning, telling Maricopa County Judge Andrew Klein that he wanted Sutherland to get less than five years, but with lots of community service.
Prosecutors had already tentatively accepted the new deal before the hearing. And when all was said and done, Klein sentenced Sutherland to three and a half years behind bars.
Sutherland also got 1,000 community-service hours, to be spent educating youth on the dangers of drunk driving, and five years' probation. But that's obviously better than rotting in prison for a decade. Which, under Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas' system, is what a couple of Mexicans -- who committed the same crime as Sutherland -- will do.
The day before Sutherland's sentencing, Jocabed Dominguez-Torres also was sentenced in a fatal DUI crash she caused. The similarities to Sutherland's case are striking: They both killed someone. Dominguez-Torres is 23, like Sutherland. She had blood-alcohol level of .20, about the same as Sutherland's .194. She was driving recklessly, like Sutherland.
But the differences are what's important: Dominguez-Torres, an illegal immigrant, got 10 1/2 years. The victim's family in her case didn't ask for leniency in the death of Chris Miller, 20. In fact, family members have joined forces with anti-illegal-immigrant protesters, as a KPHO news story on the sentencing reported.
"Well, obviously nothing will ever replace Chris, but if anything can come out of the fact that he was killed by a drunk driver who was illegal, we're hoping to fight both battles at this point," said Scott Miller, the victim's father, according to the KPHO report.
Two years ago, a 20-year-old Mexican national was sentenced to nine years for killing Gilbert postal worker Larry Brabeck, 51. Antonio Hernandez, who later was determined to have a blood-alcohol level of .13, was speeding off a U.S. 60 exit ramp near Val Vista Road when he slammed into three cars.
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No one from Thomas' office would speak to New Times for this report so it's unclear whether the office gives weight traditionally to requests for leniency by dead victims' family members.
However, such requests are extremely rare. Mischa Hepner, staff attorney for the Crime Victims Legal Assistance Project, says she's never before heard of a victim or a victim's family pressing for a lighter sentence. Typically, the County Attorney's office doesn't stray from its own recommendations. But the victim's nephew, Nestor Tepec, wanted Hepner's Tempe-based organization to advocate on his behalf, believing that lots of community service on top of a shorter prison sentence would actually be worse for Sutherland. Hepner says she took Tepec's case all the way up to Thomas, who agreed to change the plea deal as Tepec wished.
The County Attorney could have said no, could have stuck to his guns and demanded six-and-a-half years, as his underlings recommended. After all, Thomas has a reputation as a tough-as-nails, ultra-conservative top prosecutor.
Maybe he would have done just that had Sutherland been a poor Mexican, instead of the daughter of Scottsdale multi-millionaires who own a chain of 1,400 ice cream stores.