both of Westfield, will not serve any jail time for their roles in the death of Patricia Currie, 68, of Scotch Plains.
The Westfield crossing guards, who admitted they had been drinking at the Knights of Columbus, located on North Avenue in Westfield, before they hit Currie at the intersection of North Avenue and Tuttle Parkway on Jan. 25, 2012, appeared before Union County Superior Court Judge Joseph P. Donohue Friday morning for sentencing.
Currie, a hospice nurse, had grazed pedestrian David Kervick with her car and was attempting to lead him to safety when she was hit first by Casiere and then, moments later, by Diaz. Currie, a mother of two, died later of her injuries.
Under plea agreements with Assistant Prosecutor Martin Delaney of Bergen County, both Casiere and Diaz faced third-degree offenses, which carry maximum penalties of five years in jail.
Casiere's attorney, Anthony Palumbo, asked that Donohue take his client's age and health conditions into consideration. Palumbo stated that Casiere and his family feel "indescribable pain because of what happened to Ms. Currie." He also asked the judge to think of Casiere as "a good man who did a bad thing." He reminded the court that his client had served in both World War II and the Korean War and raised five children. Currently, Casiere spends his days caring for his wheelchair-bound wife who was unable to accompany him to court Friday due to her deteriorating health, Palumbo said.
Donohue, who described cases such as this among the "most difficult" he must preside over, said he weighed the aggravating and mitigating factors and found that the mitigating factors "significantly and substantially outweigh (the) aggravating factors in this case."
He noted that sending Casiere to prison would be not only a "hardship" to the senior citizen but one to his wife as well. Though he said he had never had to decide a case involving a man of Casiere's age going to prison, he said that did not make him "judgement-proof."
Donohue then sentenced Casiere to a three-year suspended sentence for the vehicular homicide charge and a four-year state prison term that also suspended the imposition of the custodial term in the matter of the charge of third degree assault for hitting Kervick. He was also issued fines amounting to under $1,500. Further, Casiere is no longer permitted to operate a motor vehicle. Donohue, who is eligible to retire in three years, said Casiere is to surrender to the court in three years time when he will revisit the sentence. Donohue noted that he did not want another judge who was unfamiliar with all aspects of the case, including the pain and suffering Currie's family has endured and the considerable damage done to Kervick, to step in to rule after he has retired.
"Mr. Casiere, the difference between this sentence and a straight probationary sentence is if you violate the conditions of this suspended sentence, you are to appear immediately to have the sentence imposed against you without any further findings," said Donohue, who added that he will continue to suspend the sentence so long as Casiere does what he is supposed to do as monitored by probation.
Before Diaz's sentencing, his attorney, Anthony Rinaldo, told Donohue that his client suffers from "several maladies." In addition to having recently undergone cataract surgery, Diaz also has two heart stents. Diaz also served in the U.S. Army, Rinaldo said, and was a postal employee for 32 years. Diaz, who initially fled the scene of the accident, a second-degree crime, fully cooperated with police officers once he realized what had happened, Diaz said, adding that like Casiere, Diaz has no past criminal history, nor any motor vehicle violations. Diaz told Currie's reatives, who filled the second row of the courtroom, how sorry he was.
Donohue then issued Diaz a five-year suspended sentence and a series of fines. Further, he cannot operate a motor vehicle for the length of this sentence. He, too, will be under parole supervision.
"If you violate your probation you could be sentenced to up to five years in state prison, do you understand?" Donohue said.
Immediately after Diaz's sentence was announced, Currie's daughter, who was visibly upset throughout the proceedings, left the courtroom.
Tom Sullivan, Currie's younger brother, read an emotional statement on behalf of his family, prior to the sentences being handed down, and described his sister as the "matriarch of the family."
Sullivan, of Pt. Pleasant Beach, said the whole family, particularly Currie's two children and four grandchildren, miss her "guidance, friendship and love." Sullivan also thanked the Westfield Police Department, EMS workers, the staff at Overlook Hospital and all the pedestrians who stopped to help his sister on the night of the fatal accident.
Following the sentencing, Sullivan expressed his frustration at Donohue's decision.
"I know people that get DWIs, that go to jail," he said. "To kill someone and get away with it, it's almost nonsensical. It just sends a message that if you're older and you went in the Army when you were younger you can go out and drink and drive and run people over and kill them and it's ok. Judge Donohue thinks it's ok."
Just before Donohue issued the sentences, Delaney said that Currie's family, seeking justice rather than vengeance, would trust the judge's decision.
"This thing got switched from Union County to Bergen County because we have a lot of relatives who work here and unfortunately that seemed to backfire on us," Sullivan said. "I would've preferred somebody local who was more interested in the case."
Sullivan said while the crossing guards' ages were a concern, he didn't think it would end up that "they'd walk out. I thought the judge would be wise enough to send a good message to the public."
Outside the courtroom, Palumbo and Rinaldo said their clients are heartbroken as a result of the accident and the fact that they may not be going to jail doesn't mean they can move on.
"They're both going to suffer every day for the rest of whatever time they have left," Palumbo said.
"With regards to Judge Donohue's decision, we're certainly happy that the judge agreed that there would be a serious injustice if my client went to jail, similar to Mr. Casiere. Even though their ages are different, they're still both excellent individuals in the community for long periods of time. I'm sure that he'll regret this for the rest of his life and he won't be driving either," said Rinaldo.
Both Palumbo and Rinaldo anticipate civil suits will be brought by the Currie and Kervick families against their clients. Further, they said they expect the Knights of Columbus will be sued for its role in the accident. Rinaldo also said the Town of Westfield could be named in a suit because a report by a traffic engineer had previously identified the area where the accident took place as poorly lit.