Cost of drunk driving aired at manslaughter sentencing
Robert Burr Jr.'s three children lost their father when a drunken driver careened into the path of the 35-year-old Clinton man's Harley-Davidson two years ago on Interstate 95 in East Lyme.
The driver was Christiana Morton-Lane of Old Lyme. Her two little girls are growing up in separate homes without their 25-year-old mother, who as of Wednesday is a convicted felon serving a seven-year prison sentence for manslaughter, drunken driving and assault.
The cost of Morton-Lane's actions on July 8, 2012, when she drove with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit after having several drinks at the Lyme Tavern, seemed unquantifiable Wednesday as damaged and grieving members of both families spoke at her sentencing in New London Superior Court.
"These cases are the absolute worst things I do as a judge," said Judge Kevin P. McMahon as he handed down a sentence that had been hammered out after months of discussions with Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Michael E. Kennedy and Senior Assisant Public Defender Jennifer B. Nowak.
McMahon sentenced Morton-Lane to 12 years, suspended after seven years served, followed by five years of probation with numerous conditions. He ordered her to pay $3,466 in restitution to Burr's family for funeral expenses and other costs. A civil lawsuit is pending.
Morton-Lane was driving on the Rocky Neck connector heading toward I-95 south when state police said she lost control of her Ford Escort, struck and rode up onto a wire rope guardrail and crossed into oncoming traffic on I-95 South.
During the hearing, Morton-Lane stood and apologized to Burr's family and friends.
"I don't expect forgiveness," she said. "I won't ask for it. I don't think I can ever forgive myself."
She said she lost a sister in 2010 and a brother in May of 2012, and had a new baby when the crash occurred. She said she is working and seeking treatment at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Burr and his fiancée, Emily Gorin, were riding back to Clinton from the annual Sailfest fireworks show in New London with Burr's uncle, Dwaine Wilcox, and his passenger, Sharon Gell, when the crash occurred shortly after 1 a.m.
Burr and Gorin were thrown from their motorcycle. Burr's fatally injured body was covered with a white sheet at the scene and remained on the roadway while state police investigated the accident, according to his family members. A medical examiner who performed the autopsy ruled Burr died of a crushed larynx, according to the family.
Gorin was thrown from the bike and critically injured. She suffered a traumatic brain injury, a fractured tibia, a broken hand and a liver injury so severe that she could not use pain medication during her recovery.
Wilcox suffered a broken ankle, injured Achilles tendon and chipped tibia. Gell had a torn meniscus and post traumatic stress disorder.
In a statement to the court that the judge said he wished could have been filmed "to show what drunk driving does to people," Gorin told of waking up from a coma and learning she had lost her fiance, the tree business they had started together and their home. She told of a long, painful recovery that included reconstructive hand surgery, severe anxiety and a move back to her mother's house at the age of 32. She said she had to learn to walk again. She said she is an artist but has been unable to draw anything since the crash.
While she spoke, Burr's oldest son, 17-year-old Damen Burr, stood behind Gorin wearing his father's orange Harley-Davidson shirt. He wore around his neck the key to his father's motorcycle and a small container of his ashes.
Burr's mother, Patricia Gerrits, said the daily grief the family experiences is suffocating.
"Her selfish act that night stole my son," she said. "She killed a man. Whether she meant it or not, the result is the same."
Court-assigned victim advocate LeeAnn Vertefeuille and Johanna Krebs from the Connecticut office of Mothers Against Drunken Driving had provided input from the family during the plea bargaining process and had orchestrated their presentation for the sentencing. Krebs showed a five-minute video montage of Burr's life that the family had put together to help illustrate their loss.
Kennedy, the prosecutor, said that during plea bargaining he had argued for the first time for a shorter prison sentence followed by a lengthy period of special parole, based in large part on the victim's wishes that, rather than spend a lot of time in prison, Morton-Lane could educate the public on the dangers of drunken driving. Kennedy said, however, that the sentence that McMahon ultimately imposed "is in line with dispositions of a similar nature that have occurred across the state."
Nowak, the public defender, said she asked the judge to consider a more standard sentence of prison time followed by a probationary term because the court could impose conditions of probation but not special parole. "With jail time and probation, I can tell my client what to expect," she said.
While on probation, McMahon ordered Morton-Lane to attend another sentencing in a drunken-driving manslaughter case, to undergo medical health evaluation and treatment if necessary, to send a letter of apology to Burr's children each year on the anniversary of his death, to speak twice a year about the experience to educate others and to use an ignition interlock device if she is allowed to drive again. She is prohibited from using drugs or alcohol.
The judge noted the importance of sending a message that there is a high price to be paid for drinking and driving, and said he had ordered someone to attend Wednesday's sentencing so that they could see the tragic results first-hand.
"This is never going to do exactly what we wanted it to do," said Krebs, from MADD, of the court process.
She said Burr's family members were a good team who supported each other throughout the process. In their statements to the court, many of his survivors said they were forgiving Morton-Lane because it was good for their own health.
Several of them wore T-shirts imprinted with one of his favorite sayings, "We are only here for a visit."
Burr's family said they have wanted to thank the driver of a Stop & Shop truck who was able to stop his truck before striking the downed motorcyclists that night and to block oncoming traffic. They asked that the driver contact them through Krebs at MADD at (203) 764-2566, ext. 6592.
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