Retribution and deterrence.
Derby Superior Court Judge Charles T. Lee cited those two concepts Monday in sentencing an Oxford man who was behind the wheel in a crash that killed 15-year-old Brandon Giordano in March 2012 to seven months behind bars, despite pleas from the departed teen’s mother to spare the man prison time.
The judge said that though the man, 21-year-old Eric Ramirez, is clearly remorseful, and Giordano’s family showed “remarkable decency” in forgiving him, Ramirez “also owes a debt to society.”
Ramirez was driving Giordano and another friend, 16-year-old Dion Major, to Oxford late on the night of March 9, 2012 in his 2000 Ford Mustang when he failed to pull over for a Seymour police officer who tried to stop him on Route 67 for having illegal “ground effect” lights on his car.
Ramirez sped up Route 67 into Oxford, at one point going 91 mph in a 30 mph zone, and also turned off his car’s lights in an effort to elude the pursuing police officer.
He eventually lost control of his car while trying to turn onto Old State Road 67, then hit a grassy embankment that caused the vehicle to vault nearly 60 feet through the air before hitting the side of the Precision Glass and Mirror building.
The car came to rest on its roof.
Giordano, riding in the back seat, was pronounced dead at the scene, and Ramirez and Major were hospitalized for their injuries.
The plea offer from Judge Lee in the case called for a maximum sentence of nine months behind bars.
Giordano’s mother, Angela Borrelli, has for months said she’d prefer to see Ramirez receive probation and be ordered to talk to other teens about the consequences of his actions that night two years ago.
’They See It As A Game’
But prosecutor John Kerwin asked Judge Lee to hand down the nine-month jail sentence, saying that while Borrelli’s attitude was brave and commendable, the judge also had to keep in mind the importance of deterring others from behaving similarly.
“This is a very serious crime,” Kerwin siad. “A young man’s life was cut short . . . The community needs to feel as if there’s been justice. The only reasonable punishment is a sentence of jail.”
Kerwin said that he’s seen all too many cases of teens involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents in his two decades as a prosecutor.
He cited a “teenage culture” that glorifies speed and trying to run from cops, pointing to video games like “Need For Speed” and movies like the “Fast and the Furious” franchise that, he argued, teach teens it’s OK to run from police.
When you crash a car in a game, it’s easy to just hit the reset button, he said.
“They see it as a game,” Kerwin told Judge Lee. “That doesn’t happen in real life.”
Mother: ‘It Was An Impulsive, Stupid Decision’
In a tearful statement, Borrelli disagreed with Kerwin, saying she didn’t think he was trying to play a game with the cop pursuing him.
“He had no time to think,” Borrelli said. “It was an impulsive, stupid decision.”
If the judge wanted to send a message in the case, Borrelli said, sending Ramirez to jail wouldn’t be the best one.
“He should be out there talking to kids,” she said, instead of being forced to “harden himself” to survive in prison.
“He’s living forever, waking up every morning, knowing he’s part of the reason why Brandon’s not here today,” she said.
Borrelli read a sympathy card Ramirez gave her in the days after the crash saying he was “extremely sorry.”
“I loved him like the brother I never had,” she quoted Ramirez as writing.
“He’s learned his lesson,” Borrelli said. “Jail’s not going to teach him anything further than he’s already learned.”
’He Did Not Set Out To Hurt Anybody’
Ramirez’s lawyer, Tara Knight, said Ramirez feels “profoundly guilty” about the crash.
“This was an accident,” she said. “He did not set out to hurt anybody.”
Knight also said that deterrence “does not work with teenage boys” who lack impulse control and don’t always appreciate the consequences of their actions.
The remorse of those consequences are sufficient punishment, she argued.
“Isn’t ‘I killed my best friend,’ isn’t that enough?” Knight asked. “No one is beating himself up more than Eric . . . Nothing good comes of jail. Nothing.”
’I’ll Never Forgive Myself’
Ramirez echoed his lawyer’s remarks in a brief statement he made after his parents and an aunt asked Judge Lee not to send him to jail.
“Every day of my life I just wake up thinking that I cannot be with my friend anymore, my best friend,” Ramirez said. “We spent almost every day together.”
He said when he found out Brandon died, “I couldn’t cope with it. I just couldn’t believe it, knowing that the rest of my life I’d never be able to see him again.”
“I don’t know what made me go out of control like that,” Ramirez said. “I don’t remember it. I just wish that I could remember at least something of that day, just so I could remember my last day with him.”
“I thought of his family as my own family. I was always welcome in their house and they always made me feel loved even though I wasn’t their own son,” Ramirez went on, saying he couldn’t see how Borrelli could be so generous in her support.
“I just feel absolutely awful every day. I try to talk to Brandon . . . I go outside and look up to the sky and talk to him. It just really hurts me every day,” he said. “I’ll never forgive myself, no matter what happens.”
‘Eric Must Be Held Responsible’
Before handing down the sentence, Judge Lee discussed Ramirez’s background — and pointed out Ramirez had five prior motor vehicle violations on his record, including for driving unreasonably fast and having illegal lights on his car, which led to his having to take part in “operator retraining” classes twice.
The judge said he believed those prior violations “may have been partly what caused Mr. Ramirez to panic and speed away from the police cruiser, rather than pull over and face the consequences of another vehicle citation.”
Judge Lee said that though Ramirez’s “attitude toward the offense is plainly one of great remorse,” Ramirez also owed a debt to society.
The judge said he had to consider a number of factors in deciding on a sentence — deterrence of future similar conduct, protecting society from danger, rehabilitation, retribution.
“In this case the two most pertinent factors are retribution and deterrence,” Judge Lee said. “Brandon was killed as the result of Eric’s misconduct in fleeing from the police at high speed and then turning off his lights.”
“As a result, society was deprived of the benefit of a promising young man, who will not have a family, who will not serve his country,” the judge went on. “Eric must be held responsible and pay a price for choosing to act wrongly.”
At the same time, he said it’s important to deter others from acting similarly in the future.
“It does not take much elaboration to consider how bad the consequences could be if other young drivers were to see that engaging in this kind of behavior, which caused a death, was not met with meaningful punishment,” the judge said. “In light of these factors, incarceration is required.”
As Ramirez’s friends and family members cried in the first row of the courtroom’s gallery, the judge then sentenced him to an 18-month prison sentence, to be suspended after Ramirez serves seven months, to be followed by two years of probation.
While on probation, Judge Lee ordered Ramirez to perform 175 hours of community service by participating in a program run by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (though Ramirez was sober at the time of the crash) by speaking to other teens about the accident.
Outside the courtroom, Knight said she was disappointed with the judge’s sentence, saying she thought it was “predetermined.”
“I do understand the reasons for the decision, but I think in light of the particular circumstances of this case, he should have gotten a more minimal jail sentence,” Knight said.
“It’s a tragedy all the way around,” she said.
Borrelli said that while she did not want Ramirez sent to jail, “I can’t say that I’m truly disappointed in the final decision.”
“I trusted that the judge would make the right decision,” Borrelli said. “I decided to put it in God’s hands whatever the outcome was. I’m not happy or sad. It is a relief that is finally over.”
She said she feels sorry for Ramirez’s family, but that “he will come home. Brandon doesn’t come home.”
Borrelli’s lawyer, Richard Lynch, said Giordano’s family is still considering filing a lawsuit against the Seymour police in connection with the chase.
The officer who tried to stop Ramirez, Anthony Renaldi, was cleared of wrongdoing in the pursuit by an internal investigation, though Knight called the internal probe a “whitewash” that glossed over the fact that Renaldi’s alleged termination of the pursuit was never recorded by the police department’s dispatch center.
“That’s being investigated,” Lynch said of a possible lawsuit. “Our law office is gathering information and pursuing every avenue but have not made a decision at this point.”
Ramirez’s family members declined to comment outside the courthouse.