« "The Trouble with Reentry: Five Takeaways from Working with People Returning to Chicago from Prison" | Main | Prez Trump and all the leading Democratic Prez candidates now slated to speak at 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum »

October 19, 2019

You be the judge: what sentence for driver convicted of reckless homicides for accidentally killing children boarding school bus?

A helpful reader altered me to a heart-breaking story from Indiana which serves as an opportunity to considering what seems a fitting sentence for a crime with a horrible result but a result that was plainly not intended by the wrong-doer. Here are some details from this local article:

Nearly a year after Alyssa Shepherd drove past a stopped school bus, killing three siblings as they crossed a two-lane highway to board the bus, a Fulton County jury convicted her of reckless homicide in the children's deaths.  Shepherd, prosecutors say, was driving a pickup truck that struck and killed twins Xzavier and Mason Ingle, both 6, and their sister Alivia Stahl, 9, and also critically injured Maverik Lowe, 11, as they crossed the highway north of Rochester on Oct. 30.  Lowe, who's still recovering from his injuries, has had more than 20 surgeries since the crash.

Shepherd was found guilty Friday of three felony counts of reckless homicide.  The jury also found her guilty of a felony count of criminal recklessness and a misdemeanor count of passing a school bus causing injury when the arm is extended. She faces up to 21 years if given the maximum amount on each count.

The parents of Mason and Xzavier, Shane and Brittany Ingle, and Michael Stahl, Brittany's ex-husband and Alivia's dad, told reporters after the verdict that they were relieved, and have no sympathy for Shepherd, who they believe has shown no remorse for the crash.  "I don't think we'll ever feel closure," Brittany Ingle said. "But this will go toward healing."...

Earlier Friday, Shepherd took the stand in Fulton Superior Court. Family members of Shepherd and the victims, had filled the Fulton County courthouse this week to hear testimony from witnesses and law enforcement.  When asked by her attorney when it started to sink in that she’d hit and killed three children after driving past a school bus, Shepherd described emotions ranging from disbelief to hysteria.  But at first it was confusion, according to her testimony. She remembered seeing blinking lights and something that appeared to be a large vehicle.  But she didn't see a bus, Shepherd says, nor did she see the red sign telling her to stop.

When she'd realized what she'd done, Shepherd says she was hysterical.  "The only way I can describe it is an out-of-body experience," Shepherd said, according to the account provided to IndyStar by the small number of reporters who were allowed into the packed courtroom, "I was a mess."

The four children were crossing the highway to board their school bus about 7:15 a.m. when prosecutors say Shepherd blew by a stopped school bus.  The road was dark but prosecutors said the bus lights and stop arm were clearly visible.  Whether Shepherd was behind the wheel that morning was not being disputed, according to statements made from the defense and prosecution during the trial.  Jurors instead decided whether Shepherd’s actions were reckless or simply accidental....

Shepherd was driving with three children in the back seat of her Toyota Tacoma before the crash happened, according to court documents.  She had just dropped off her husband at work at about 7:05 a.m. and was heading to her mother's home in the Rochester area to drop off her little brother when she rounded a bend on Indiana 25.  She'd taken that road many times before, her attorney Michael Tuszynski said, but rarely at that time of day.

As she was driving, the 24-year-old Shepherd saw something in the distance, but couldn't quite make it out, according to Tuszynski, who said that a freightliner was behind the bus, making it appear to Shepherd as one large vehicle.  "The circumstances of the bus, with the freightliner behind it, combined to create the profile of one vehicle, making it seem like it's a semi that's moving. And she's confused about what she sees," he said.

But after the crash, the driver of another vehicle that was following Shepherd's Toyota through the bend on Indiana 25 said the school bus lights and stop arm were clearly visible even though the road was dark.  This is according to testimony from Indiana State Police detective Michelle Jumper during a probable cause hearing held hours after the crash.

The witness said she and Shepherd were traveling at 45 mph, Jumper testified.  The witness said she slowed when she saw the school bus and its blinking lights. Shepherd didn't. "Suddenly she sees the children," Tuszynski said Friday. "She brakes. But it was too late."  Shepherd's friend, Brittany Thompson, who spoke to Shepherd on the phone after the crash, testified that Shepherd said she'd seen the lights and was trying to negotiate how far to move over. Thompson said Shepherd was distraught. "I didn't know it was a bus," Shepherd reportedly said.

The victims' family told reporters that Shepherd appeared cold during the trial, and seemed unconcerned with the deaths that resulted from her actions. "When I was giving my testimony," Brittany Ingle said, "I looked her straight in the eyes and she gave nothing. She had no remorse."

Tuszynski said there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Shepherd's system at the time of the crash.  He placed blame on the location of the bus stop, which required the children to cross the highway to board the bus.  "The idea that it was OK to make those kids cross that busy road to get on a bus, rather than move the stop into the (trailer) park, is absurd," Tuszynski said.

The Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation announced shortly after the crash that it would relocate the bus stop into the trailer park where the students lived. Superintendent Blaine Conley testified Friday that the park had previously been considered for the location.  But officials were worried that the school bus could hit children in the area due to poor lighting.  The crash led to statewide changes, prompting the Legislature to increase penalties for drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses.  Shane and Brittany Ingle spent several days at the Statehouse this past year lobbying for the changes.

Via a google search, I found in this change.org petition titled "Alyssa Shepard should receive a life sentence for hitting 4 children, killing 3 of them." But it seems applicable Indiana law caps her possible sentence at 21 years.  And I would be eager to hear from readers if they think anything close to a maxed out prison sentence is appropriate in a case involving an (awful) accident. Is any prison sentence fitting?  How much should it matter that the family of the slain children seem eager for a severe term?  You be the judge.

October 19, 2019 at 06:54 PM | Permalink

Comments

Life with no chance of parole. Nothing else would be acceptable IMHO

-Jeff

Posted by: Jeff Goldstein | Oct 19, 2019 7:05:48 PM

It is an accident. I get the victims are children. The fact that the victims are kids should not be relevant for a criminal sentence unless the offender targeted the victims due to their youth. When you use an invective like "slain," Doug you tilt the inquiry as though the deaths were purposeful. Sentencing should not be based upon a perception that the victims are a protected class or that there is a "heinous crime exception" to the concept that the sentence should commensurate to the offender's personal culpability.

Posted by: ? | Oct 19, 2019 9:15:12 PM

Yes, it was an accident. However, the evidence provided that the jury found it to be a reckless homicide.

It is in that context, with that evidence that a sentence is considered.

I think it, highly, unlikely, she has no remorse. She has three children of her own.

Folks, often, tune out, under extreme stress and I suspect that is what we have here.

IF the story is accurate, the jury are looking at a lying, reckless driver.

At the time of the crash she stated that she did see the lights on the bus but later that she did not.

It appears that the jury believed the crime scene admission.

Is 21 years too long for 3 reckless homicides and a 4th victim with, what appears to be, life long physical and emotional problems?

It is very hard to evaluate it you have not been at trial.

I know, from experience, being a juror is a huge responsibility and weighing all considerations within the law and the case calls for each juror to apply all reason and humanity, within the law.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Oct 20, 2019 7:45:41 AM

One year to serve, followed by 5 years probation, and 1,000 hours of community service.

Posted by: James Gormley | Oct 20, 2019 2:14:42 PM

In the title of this post, ?, I reference "accidentally killing children," though I agree that the term "slain" is a sharp one. And I dispute, at least a bit, that nature of the victims should not matter absent a direct connection to the offender's mens rea (as many sentencing statutes and guideline systems have enhancements based on the victim's status that do not turn on the offender's mens rea).

These quibbles aside, it is interesting to not get specific recommendation from some advocating a more modest approach to the sentencing. I think one reason for modern mass incarceration is that it is so very easy to get outraged and push for an extreme term (stat max or LWOP or whatever), but so much harder to put a number on a more modest nuanced reaction to the situation. The points made by ? and Dudley are sound, but what sentence does it connote? No prison time? A year? Five? Ten?

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 20, 2019 2:18:32 PM

Why were children boarding a bus at 7:15am when most kids haven't gotten 8-9 hours of sleep by that time in the morning? You wouldn't send a child to school on an empty stomach or without clothes to stay warm, so why send them to school when they're too tired to stay awake?

The person who ordered the children to board a bus that early is the one who deserves life in prison without parole, not the people who are the victims of the teacher's union that set the school start time.

Posted by: Falling Up | Oct 20, 2019 2:46:43 PM

"She'd taken that road many times before, her attorney Michael Tuszynski said, but rarely at that time of day."

Highway hypnosis is a real thing.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway_hypnosis

Accident specialists know that most accidents happen close to home on roads were are familiar with, precisely because that is when we let our guard down.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 20, 2019 5:04:03 PM

No prison time. 500 hours community service. It's the state's fault for being in the Eastern Time Zone, with daylight savings time, artificially making sunrise nearly two hours late. They should move to Central Time for the whole state with no daylight savings time, and then sunrise is at a decent hour.

Posted by: Poirot | Oct 20, 2019 5:22:02 PM

She doesn't need to be incapacitated (though maybe no driving as a term of probation should be considered), it's unclear that a lengthy sentence would serve much deterrence for these kinds of situations, no reason to think prison would rehabilitate the driver.

If I'm unbound by existing rules: maybe one month in jail, nine months of home confinement, and a massive financial restitution/penalty, first priority to the surviving child, second priority to the families of the other children. I'd rather get most of the retributive effect accomplished via a means that will provide some help for the surviving victim. At the same time,I feel that a sentence without *any* incarceration might fail to reflect the seriousness of an offense in which three people died. I'm glad it's not my decision to make though.

Posted by: Jason | Oct 20, 2019 9:27:20 PM

Are we mad at Ms. Shepherd or are we scared of her? If we are scared of her then she needs to removed for a long time.If we are mad at Ms. Shepherd, and we are, then what is going to get her attention? I think we have her attention because she looks at her kids and realizes every day that she could have easily lost her 3 kids. In such a situation, 21 years in prison is greater than necessary to achieve the purposes of sentencing. I suggest that 3 years is sufficient because she is also going to be sued for everything she's got. Her kids will suffer while mom is in prison and will be forever changed due to such an adverse childhood experience. Is that enough damage on both sides. Probably.

Posted by: ? | Oct 20, 2019 9:40:39 PM

Adding: Maybe drop down the home confinent some and add a hefty community service requirement (say, eight hours a week) for the maximum probation term. Putting a number on this is difficult . . . but these suggestions are attempts to reflect the harm caused by her actions.

Her actions cost the surviving victim, his parents, and society a lot of money, so she should face the consequences financially. I'm sure the parents will be putting in much more than eight hours a week of extra parenting time because if the survivor's injuries . . . having the driver "repay" those by service to society is less than fully satisfactory but probably the best we can do. In this way, I'd argue, we can know the penalty is not disproportionate to the harm committed.

Posted by: Jason | Oct 20, 2019 9:43:44 PM

I don't think a financial penalty for the criminal sentence seem appropriate as the civil case would surely drain her family of most of the money they could afford. It is obvious that she did not kill the kids on purpose, but surely she did so in a reckless manner. Growing up in a suburban area and driving to school at 6:30 in the morning it is painfully obvious that one should slow down if they can't even discern what a school bus looks like as they are driving along the highway. It is incredible that people don't want any prison time for someone who not only should never drive again, but does something so exceedingly reckless. Even if partial blame could be put on the school district for the placement of the pick-up point it is still her responsibility to drive in a manner to avoid situations such as these. If it is too dark to see, slow down.

In my view sentencing her to a long period of time would only serve as retribution for the act as well as some deterrence. Both of which are important but should not be the only considerations. The community as a whole is changed by this action. So i would first say that her license she be revoked permanently, no exceptions. 10 years in prison (As she would get paroled most likely earlier than this). With a large amount of community service. 400 hours (100 for every child who had their life forever changed). Public apology.

Posted by: Marcus Perry | Oct 21, 2019 12:32:06 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB