What’s just punishment for a driver who takes a motorcyclist’s life? Obviously, it depends.
What was the cause of the accident? What were the road conditions at the time of the crash? And in what shape was the driver? Was the driver texting or checking the web? Was the driver impaired by alcohol or drugs? Or was the rider not paying attention?
What prompts these questions was reaction to a sentence handed down on Monday by a Connecticut judge in Waterbury Superior Court. He sentenced Stephanie Clavell, a 25-year-old Waterbury mother of a five-year-old son, to two years in prison for the death of 53-year-old rider Terrence Doyle of Wolcott. Clavell could have received four years in prison after pleading guilty in August to second-degree manslaughter.
While Clavell (pictured) lacked a criminal record, Judge Roland Fasano said the punishment had to reflect the crime. “This is how an otherwise good person can go to prison,” the judge said. At the time of the accident, Clavell told police that she had been checking a web page on her phone and felt an impact. She had run into Doyle, who had been stopped at a traffic light while riding a vintage Kawasaki.
Reaction to the story by “The Republican-American” to the sentence that Clavell received was instantaneous and vicious. Two people who commented called it “bs” and “far too light for the crime.” Another person demanded, “Give her 20 years,” while another called the sentence “a joke.”
But was it?
The 27-year-old Maine woman who struck and killed Torrington realtor T.J. Zappulla in June 2012 as he was riding his motorcycle in New Hampshire received a sentence of two to five years on a more serious charge of negligent homicide. When she was sentenced a year ago, Ashley Bailey became eligible for parole in 18 months. She was legally drunk when she plowed into Zappulla.
If’ the punishment that Clavell received is “a joke,” what can Bailey’s punishment be described as? Clavell momentarily looked away from the road; Bailey had no business being behind the wheel.
Presumably sentencing guidelines, a defendant’s past record, and the genuineness of the remorse shown by the defendant at sentencing come into play.
I wonder, though, what culpability does a rider have? A news report on CBS Connecticut immediately after Clavell’s accident said Doyle was stopped behind at an SUV at a stop light. Clavell ran into Doyle, “the motorcycle hit the SUV, then went backwards and Doyle went head first into the windshield of the Clavell’s car. He was not wearing a helmet.”
Those last words – “…was not wearing a helmet” – suggest the outcome could have been different for both parties. Yes, in Connecticut, riders have a choice as to whether to wear a helmet. That’s the law, but that doesn’t absolve the rider of any responsibility when it comes to consequences. The Connecicut Rider Education Program courses all preach “All The Gear, All The Time.” Anyone who doesn’t wear “protection” must share some of the blame when something bad happens. It’s idiocy to ride without a DOT-approved, full-face helmet. Accidents cannot be predicted.
And should a driver have to shoulder the full burden as well when the rider is oblivious to what’s going on? How many riders are “situationally unaware” of their surroundings? How many fail to continually scan ahead for vehicles pulling from side roads or parking lots? Basic instruction tells a rider that when stopped at a stop light to be near either the center line or the fog line and to keep the bike in first gear with the left hand on the clutch lever, watching your rear-view mirror for vehicles coming up behind. That way, if you need to escape quickly, you can. It’s a good habit for riders to adopt.
It always tough to lose a friend. I know this first-hand, so I sympathize with the outrage that some of Doyle’s friends feel. Yet, at the same time, I cannot help but think the judge got the sentence right. Many in the motorcycle community jump to the conclusion that those who cause motorcycle deaths somehow get off more leniently than others or that motorcyclists are “lesser victims.”
I suspect that if anyone actually did some in-depth research, they’d find that the perpetrators of all vehicular deaths are treated fairly equally and that those of us who ride notice only the court cases involving riders for the simple reason that we do ride. One size certainly doesn’t fit all.