- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A Charles County judge has sentenced a Pomfret woman to three years in prison for killing a La Plata man while driving drunk last summer.
While attempting a U-turn onto southbound U.S. 301 at its intersection with Demarr Road in White Plains on Aug. 23, 2011, Stephanie Ann Orbits, 40, failed to yield right of way to Philip Lyle Woodford Jr., who was driving his motorcycle south on the highway.
Orbits struck Woodford in her rental car, a 2011 Chevrolet Impala. Woodford, 52, and a father of three, was pronounced dead on the scene.
At the time of the accident, Orbits had a 0.15 blood-alcohol level, nearly twice the state’s legal limit of 0.08, Charles County Assistant State’s Attorney Francis J. Granados said at her sentencing hearing Wednesday.
A Charles County grand jury indicted Orbits on Feb. 3, charging her with negligent vehicular manslaughter and two counts of negligent vehicular homicide while under the influence of alcohol. She pleaded guilty in June to the charge of negligent vehicular manslaughter.
At the hearing, defense attorney John McKenna said Orbits has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the accident and has sought psychological, alcohol and religious counseling “to deal with the very real guilt and remorse and to ensure that something like this never happens again.”
Granados acknowledged Orbits’ remorse, but asked Circuit Court Judge Robert C. Nalley to “send a message” that “actions have consequences.”
“This is one of, if not the most preventable type of crime. How hard is it to pick up the phone and ask someone to come pick you up?” Granados asked, turning to about a dozen people in courtroom who attended the hearing in support of Orbits. “Why not call one of them? ... It was more important for her to do what she wanted to do than do what was safe.”
Granados also took exception to McKenna’s claim in a sentencing memorandum that Orbits, in choosing to drive while intoxicated, had “made a decision that countless drivers in Charles County make every day.”
“As if that is some type of excuse,” Granados said.
Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) echoed Granados, calling drunken driving the “most preventable crime that we have” and McKenna’s claim “outrageous.”
Covington, whose father was killed at the age of 33 by a drunken driver, said he tried to avoid assigning himself such cases, which he has heard others describe as akin to murder.
When Covington’s father was killed, “that’s exactly how it felt,” he said.
Covington said his office was not seeking a particular prison sentence, but that it felt jail time was warranted.
McKenna said Orbits was not seeking a sentence which excluded incarceration, but he asked Nalley to consider a prison term toward the “lower end of the guidelines” due to her expression of remorse.
“It’s one thing if you have someone who goes out and intentionally hurts someone,” McKenna said. “It’s another when you have a tragic loss of life and a person who caused that loss of life and is otherwise a good person who has led an exemplary life.”
When Nalley asked if she would like to say anything, Orbits rose and gave an emotional, sobbing apology to Woodford’s friends and family, who were seated on the other end of the courtroom.
“I am guilty. I say those words every day and it’s not going to change anything. I am prepared for whatever sentence,” she stammered. “... I’ll never know what you go through every day. I took another man’s life because of a stupid decision I made and I live with that every day. I am so sorry. ... I often wonder why God didn’t take me.”
Before handing down his sentence, Nalley lamented the “price we pay in this country for the freedoms and liberty that we exercise” when it comes to “access to booze, automobiles and guns.”
He also said his sentence had less to do with rehabilitating Orbits — stating, “If that’s ever going to happen, it already has” — than providing comfort to Woodford’s family.
“People who are hurt by criminal activity have a right to expect that society and its instruments are going to give effect to their understanding that what happened here matters,” Nalley said.
The judge sentenced Orbits to three years in prison plus five years of suspended jail time. He also ordered her to serve five years of supervised probation upon her release and prohibited her from, among other things, setting foot on “any premises where alcoholic beverages are sold.”
Covington said afterward that he was “satisfied” with Nalley’s sentence, though he felt the penalties for drunken driving should be increased. He also called the judge’s reasoning “very thoughtful.”
“I think we should treat [drunken driving] more like a crime, and Judge Nalley is one of the best in treating it like a crime,” Covington said.
Covington also addressed during the hearing a June 4 letter written to Nalley by Charles County commissioners’ president Candice Quinn Kelly (D) which identified Orbits as her “friend,” asked for “the Court’s mercy” and requested that the judge “consider a sentence that is most conducive to Ms. Orbit’s continuing progress and future.”
Beside the fact that the letter was written in defense of someone who’d confessed to drunkenly killing another person, Covington expressed concern that Kelly “didn’t have sense enough” to write Nalley a personal note, but instead sent one on official government letterhead and signed it as the commissioners’ president, “which some would think is using her weight as a commissioner to influence this court.”
“I don’t think that’s happening, and I’ve assured [Woodford’s] family that it’s not, but I just wanted to bring it up,” Covington said. “There’s only one elected official who’s authorized to argue cases before the court in the Charles County, and I’m talking right now.”
“I have no reason to think that anything inappropriate was intended,” Nalley said.
Covington said after the hearing that he brought up the letter over worries about how it might appear to anyone who considered Nalley’s sentence insufficient, given that Kelly presides over the body which determines budgets for both the local court system and state’s attorney’s office.
Charles County Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) also wrote Nalley a letter dated Aug. 6 in support of Orbits.
In the letter, Rucci described Orbits, whom he’s known for two years, as “a woman of character that has shown me her devotion to her family, friends, community and church,” but did not explicitly ask Nalley for leniency.
Since his copy of Rucci’s letter lacked the same commissioners’ letterhead as Kelly’s, Covington said he initially gave Rucci “the benefit of the doubt” and chose not to mention his letter in open court.