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WEST CHESTER – A Common Pleas Court judge on Tuesday sent a Honey Brook woman to state prison for driving drunk with her 4-year-old child in the back seat of her car before losing control and causing a devastating crash that left the victim’s family traumatized.
Any comparison to an infamous 2008 crash that claimed the life of a young state trooper from Avondale was entirely justified, according to the prosecutor in the more recent case.
“The defendant was operating a floating bar that day with a 4-year-old in the back seat,” said Assistant District Attorney Jessica Krilivsky, who asked Judge Jacqueline Cody to send 21-year-old Samantha Bernard of Honey Brook to prison for two-to-four years.
That essentially is the same situation Kristin Quercetti, the driver in the 2008 fatal crash.
Like Quercetti, Bernard had never been charged with DUI before her crash, and had been in and out of alcohol treatment that she did not take seriously enough, Krilivsky said. “This is the wake-up call that the defendant needs so that she does not cause a second crash.”
Cody, in sentencing Bernard, agreed with the prosecution that the circumstances surrounding the crash were too serious to punish with a term in county prison.
“You were way, way drunk, and yet you put your 4-year-old in the back of your car,” Cody told Bernard, who had apologized for her crime and said she was taking steps to overcome her problem with alcohol. “It is not a surprise that you ended up where you did and that your child was hurt.”
Bernard wiped away tears as she addressed Cody before sentencing. “I have to deal with the guilt every day,” she said. “I can’t make things better. The only thing I can do is to quit drinking and learn from my mistake.”
Cody sentenced Bernard to 21 to 42 months in state prison, followed by six years of probation, on charges of aggravated assault while driving under the influence, endangering the welfare of children, recklessly endangering another person, and related counts.
Afterwards, Krilivsky said she was satisfied with the prison term even though it fell short of what her office had requested. The defendant’s “conduct was at the utmost level of egregious action, and this sentence is commensurate with that,” she said.
Bernard, who had a .17 blood alcohol county at the time of the crash, more than twice the legal limit, was driving a 1998 Ford Contour around 4:45 p.m. on April 2, 2011, when she struck the rear of a car ahead of her at an intersection on Route 322 in East Brandywine.
But instead of stopping, Bernard fled the scene, racing her car to speeds as high as 90 miles per hour as the driver of the other car followed her and called police.
Bernard, with her boyfriend in the passenger seat, lost control of the car and struck a utility police on Fisherville Road in Caln. Both Bernard and her boyfriend were thrown from the car, which came to rest in a field. The 4-year-old was trapped inside. Emergency crews had to cut the car open to get her out, and she was flown to A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.
The young girl, Chasity Leonard, now 6, suffered a broken leg, a punctured lung, and a concussion. She was confined to a wheelchair and in a lower body cast for several weeks afterwards, and had to use a walker when she started kindergarten the following fall.
Members of the girl’s family told Cody, both in person and in long letters, how difficult the aftermath of the crash was for Chasity, both physically and emotionally. Because of her injuries, she cannot run and play as easily as other children in her neighborhood, and feels hat she has no friends.
She also lashes out at those around her because of the accident and her anger at her mother, Bernard, and has nightmares and problem sleeping, said her great aunt, Diane Hughes, who helps Chasity’s father and grandmother, James Leonard and Cathy Leonard care for her.
“She did not ask for this,” Hughes told Cody. “The accident has truly traumatized Chasity.”
In her presentation to Cody, Assistant Public Defender Loreen Kemps, representing Bernard, noted that her client had taken full responsibility from the beginning of the case, admitting that she had been drinking and waiving her preliminary hearing. She pleaded guilty to the charges in April.
Bernard, who gave birth to her daughter when she was in 9th grade, dropped out of school then but had gone back to get her GED and take on-line college classes. Although she no longer has primary custody of her daughter, she maintains contact and saw her just a few days before she knew she would have to report to prison.
Kemps disputed Krilivsky’s picture of Bernard drinking while driving, saying that her alcohol level was due to some drinking earlier the day of the accident and her binge drinking the night before. She said that open beer containers in the car had belonged to Bernard’s boyfriend.
But Kemps said that Bernard needed to turn her life around. “Today is the day she hopes to get her life back on track,” she said.
Cody, while praising Bernard for taking some steps to make amends for past mistakes, nevertheless pointed out that she continued to drink after the accident, admitting to a probation investigator that she had gone out for drinks on the night of her 21st birthday last August.
Cody also noted that although Bernard had never been arrested for DUI, she did have a prior underage drinking violation. “That was a clear warning, but you let that go,” the judge said. “If you had taken that seriously, you would not be here today.”
The case of Quercetti made headlines at the time because of the violence of the death of trooper, Kenton Iwaniec, and the startling condition of the driver.
Quercetti had been drinking vodka and taking prescription drugs for hours before the crash on Route 41 and was found to have a .34 alcohol level at the time she collided head-on with Iwaniec’s car, with her 4-year-old son in the back seat. She is currently serving an 8½ to 17 year sentence in state prison, among the longest terms for a fatal DUI in county history.