Two promising futures lost forever on I-395
Elizabeth Durante was an aspiring doctor on her way to a humanitarian mission in Uganda with other Connecticut College students.
Daniel Musser was a former altar boy who had considered becoming a priest before he decided to join the Navy.
Their friends and parents said they were bright, generous people whose contributions to society would have been significant.
Durante's life was cut short at 20 and Musser's future indelibly altered when Musser drove the wrong way out of Mohegan Sun after a night of drinking in March 2009 and crashed head-on into a van carrying Durante and her classmates to Logan International Airport in Boston.
Durante, thrown from the van and pinned underneath, died at the scene.
Musser, arrested on site, was dishonorably discharged from the Navy and has remained in prison while his manslaughter case was pending.
On Tuesday, as Norwich Judge Robert Young sentenced Musser, 25, to 75 months in prison and five years of strict probation, the sadness was palpable as members of the Durante and Musser families enumerated their losses, and parents of students involved in the crash described its traumatic impact.
Musser had pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle, two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment, two counts of second-degree assault, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and driving without the minimum insurance. He faced up to eight years in prison under a plea deal that was worked out between prosecutor Thomas DeLillo and defense attorney Paul F. Chinigo and approved by the judge.
The agreement gave Chinigo the right to argue for a shorter prison term, a reduction that was strenuously opposed by family members of some of the crash victims.
During an emotional hearing that lasted nearly three hours, Young listened to statements from family members of the crash victims and from Musser.
Durante's parents told Young they have forgiven Musser, because that is what Elizabeth would have wanted.
"I believe in my heart you probably didn't know what you did," said Keith Durante, a surgeon from West Islip, Long Island. "I can accept that. It's what you do now that really matters."
Durante said the loss has impacted every aspect of his life and has been particularly hard on his wife and two surviving children.
"It's limitless. It's infinite. It will go on," he said.
In August, Durante plans to travel to Uganda to "do a survey and try to see what (Elizabeth) was doing and try to continue her work."
The parents of other students involved in the crash, some of whom had traveled across the country to attend the sentencing, were less forgiving. Claudia Gordon, mother of student Jessica Gordon, spoke for an hour, weeping as she described the terror her daughter underwent that night and still feels and urging the judge to impose the maximum sentence along with the strictest probation conditions.
Musser, wearing a business suit and a neat haircut, stood and faced Durante's family while delivering his statement. He said he had brought shame to his family and country and committed "the ultimate act of insubordination."
"I have failed on so many fronts - as a sailor, a citizen and as a son," he said.
Musser acknowledged he has incurred a debt he can never fully repay, but said he would try.
Musser will be required to attend two Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim-impact panels for each of the five years he is on probation. The judge also ordered him to serve 90 hours of community service each year -10 hours for each of the accident victims - and to perform nine speaking engagements about the costs of drunken driving to college or high school students.
Young also ordered Musser not to drive a vehicle that is not equipped with an ignition interlock device that measures his blood-alcohol level, not to consume or possess alcohol and to undergo drug and alcohol evaluations. He said Musser would not be eligible for early termination of his probation.
At the time of the crash, Musser's blood-alcohol level was .13. The legal limit for driving in Connecticut is .08. He had slept in his car for 90 minutes before leaving the casino, exiting the wrong way out of the garage and driving the wrong way on the access ramp before entering Interstate 395 and driving head-on into the student transport van.
Young told Musser that if he could convey to other young people "the mess your life has become" he might be able to prevent similar incidents. He said Musser was a good person who had made a series of terrible mistakes.
"Mr. Musser, as you surely know today, this horrible incident could have been prevented by you in so many ways," Young said.
Durante's parents have filed a lawsuit against the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and the permittee and backers of the Ultra 88 nightclub where Musser told police he consumed four or five drinks that night. In the wake of this and other accidents, Mohegan Sun officials said they were better training staff to identify intoxicated patrons, stationing security personnel at garage exits on weekends to watch for impaired drivers and limiting drinks served to patrons to two an hour.