Judge Jeffrey Thompson’s courtroom was packed Thursday as Adam Greden, 18, was sentenced for his role in a car crash that killed three teens last year and severely injured another.
Friends and family submitted victim impact statements that shared their sorrow over the deaths of the three girls, with most expressing discontent with a plea agreement previously reached. Prosecutors and Judge Thompson made statements about the somber nature of the court proceedings, which Thompson admitted would not bring anyone closure.
Greden was charged last year with three counts of vehicular homicide and one count of criminal vehicular operation resulting in injury following the crash in April, 2010. Greden had been speeding in a pickup truck, and initial reports indicated that another pickup driven by Shauna Marie Ruhoff, 16, had been racing with Greden. The Ruhoff vehicle clipped the back of Greden’s truck traveling at high speeds, and the Ruhoff vehicle lost control and rolled, ejecting all of its occupants. Ruhoff, along with Katie Lee Hornberg, 14, and Morgan Elizabeth Zeller, 13, were all killed, and passenger Cydney Maker, 12 at the time, was severely injured.
Prosecutors agreed to a plea agreement in which Greden pleaded guilty to one count of careless driving, and will be placed on probation for three years. He will also be required to participate in the restorative justice program and complete 120 hours of community service within the first eight months of his probation. If he violates his probation, he may face the maximum adult penalty for the charge -- 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Tears fell during the hearing as family members shared how the loss of the girls was the greatest tragedy they’d faced. “Too many days with too many tears,” said Jay Hornberg, father of Katie Hornberg. He said the sentence proposed for the plea agreement was shocking, and that reducing the charges of vehicular homicide to one count of careless driving was not justice. He, along with several other family members who spoke or had their comments read during the hearing, asked that community service be added to the sentence, that Greden lose his license until he turns 21, and that he be required to admit he played a role in causing the accident.
Randy and Sheri Zeller, parents of Morgan Zeller, submitted a letter that spoke to the outgoing, spunky, and caring nature of their daughter, how she wanted to be a teacher and held a special sensitivity to those who had disabilities. “This has left us speechless, angry, and looking for answers. Our hearts will ache for the rest of our lives,” they said. The Zellers also said they wanted Greden to be held more accountable for his role. “We, along with many others, have not seen any remorse from Adam since the accident.”
Shauna Ruhoff’s parents, Kevin and Kathy Ruhoff, submitted a short statement indicating they did not place blame on Greden for the tragic accident.
Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman addressed the courtroom about the decision to enter into a plea agreement in the case. “This is a case that evokes a parents’ worst nightmare,” she said, adding that as a parent, her heart aches for the families of the victims, and that she did not take the plea agreement decision lightly.
Sonneman said she did not make the decision about the agreement based on public opinion, and added that she felt the very public display of support for Greden with buttons worn by his friends was inappropriate and disrespectful to families who were forever broken by the tragedy.
In the wake of such a horrible accident, said Sonneman, people cry out for more than the laws can give.
Defense attorney Michael Colich said that the more serious charges had been filed by a temporary county attorney, and that they were given before investigations were complete. He said he couldn’t convince families that Greden had not been racing that day, but added, “The evidence just wasn’t there, your honor.”
Thompson indicated that he didn’t take the decision about whether to accept the agreement lightly, either. “My job is not to wreak vengeance on the part of the community against people at all,” he said. His job, rather, is to review the evidence and make sure the plea agreement is fair for all involved. Had he not accepted the plea agreement, said Thompson, it would be a gamble to see what a jury might think of the case. “By and large, nobody really, really knows what happened,” he said.
“William Faulker said, ‘The past is not dead, it’s not even passed,’” Thompson told the crowd. He said he knew that families and friends of the victims would never forget, and the only thing a person can really do is adjust and try to get by. “My mother died 48 years ago, and I still live with that every day,” he said. “Life is fleeting.”
Thompson explained that he was not ordering any restitution in the case, adding that his experience has shown that it’s not appropriate in a motor vehicle accident criminal case. Any contributory negligence is something that can be looked at in civil court, he said.
Thompson took time to explain the rules of probation to Greden during the hearing, and indicated he wouldn’t look kindly on any violations. “You violate your probation, you’re going to jail,” he said.