Two single mothers convicted in drunken driving-related crashes stood before Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka on Wednesday to learn their fates.
Sandra Jackson, 25, of York Street in Buffalo, who left a friend brain-damaged and cost a second friend a leg, was ordered to serve two to six years in prison.
Shannon Melius, 27, of Allen Street in Blasdell, who drove away after crashing into an Amherst man's car and leaving him and his son hospitalized, was placed on probation for five years, fined, and had her driver's license revoked.
Lynnette M. Reda, chief of the Erie County district attorney's Vehicular Crimes Bureau, said the sentencing disparity hinged on the seriousness of the injuries.
The women were convicted of different crimes.
On July 8 in Pietruszka's courtroom, Jackson pleaded guilty to first-degree vehicular assault and misdemeanor drunken driving. Again, on the same day and in the same courtroom, Melius pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular assault, driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of a physical-injury accident.
On May 3, Jackson, a lunch aide in the Buffalo school system, was at the wheel of a car with five passengers when it slammed into a car pulling away from a curb on Sprenger Avenue.
Jackson's car flipped over. Her friend, Monique Sapp, 21, was left severely brain-damaged. Another friend, Shakina Barnwell, 29, had to have a leg amputated to save her life.
Jackson suffered head injuries and collapsed while trying to come to the aid of her friends, her attorney, E. Earl Key, said in court.
The remaining friends suffered minor injuries but fled before police arrived at the scene.
No one in the other vehicle was injured.
Police reports said Jackson's car smelled of marijuana and was littered with empty rum bottles.
Melius, the mother of a 2-year-old who had been working at a bar, was arrested last Nov. 2 after she was involved in a two-car crash on Lake Shore Road near the Ford Motor Co.'s Buffalo Stamping Plant in the Town of Hamburg.
Her car struck a vehicle driven by Derrick Neely, 38, and carrying his teenage son, Adam.
She left the scene but was arrested quickly afterward.
Neely and his son were hospitalized with internal injuries and recovered. Derrick Neely suffered a permanent facial scar.
Four years ago, Melius had pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, a misdemeanor. She was spared jail in that case.
Wednesday, Melius was again spared any time behind bars, but she was sentenced to five years' probation, fined $1,500, and had her license revoked. Pietruszka also ordered that if she reapplies for her license, she must have an ignition interlock system installed in her car that would prevent the engine from starting if it detects any alcohol on her breath.
According to court records, Melius quit her bartending job after the accident. She also began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, got alcoholism rehabilitation treatment, and was under the care of a doctor for alcoholism and depression.
Melius is being sued by Neely, Reda said.
Melius declined to comment Wednesday as she left court, but her attorney, Daniel J. Henry Jr., said she is now a stay-at-home mother who plans to return to college soon.
He said Melius "is very remorseful, and she just wants to change her life for the better."
Henry added that the emotional agony his client has gone through makes her drunken-driving prosecution "a perfect example of the problems of mixing alcohol and motor vehicles."
During Jackson's sentencing, Roderick Sapp, the father of her brain-damaged friend, turned to Jackson and told her that he and his family forgave her.
Sapp told the judge that he does not know whether his daughter will ever fully regain her faculties. He urged the judge to give Jackson "a just sentence, but don't condemn her."
He asked Pietruszka to release Jackson so that she could share her story and warn others in the community about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Pietruszka did not comment in sentencing her to two to six years, and after court said that he could not comment on any cases that could still be pending.
Jackson's lawyer said the sentencing does not seem fair.
"To me, the cases are too similar for the results to be so different," Key said. ". . . I think a lot of people are going to be interested in the disparity."
Key acknowledged that the injuries that Jackson's friends suffered in the crash were "horrific" and that he was not familiar with all the details of Melius' case.
But he also said he believes that two to six years was unreasonable.
"Absolutely, the sentence was harsh and excessive," Key said, pointing out that Jackson has been jailed for the last six months because she was not able to make bail. "It's not like she got off scot-free."
He added that Jackson has a 6-year-old daughter she had been raising by herself. Her parents and other relatives have been taking care of the girl since Jackson was jailed.
Key said he plans to appeal the sentence.
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