- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Circuit Judge Amy J. Bragunier denied a Pomfret woman’s request late last week to have her sentence from a 2011 hit-and-run reconsidered.
Rachel Anna Buckler, 23, entered an Alford plea in August 2012 for her role in the September 2011 death of Port Tobacco cyclist Thomas Roepcke. An Alford plea does not admit guilt but recognizes there is sufficient evidence for a conviction.
Charles County Assistant State’s Attorney Rachel Dombrowski said Buckler was driving on Chapel Point Road when she struck Roepcke with the driver side of her vehicle and continued driving, leaving the man injured on the side of a road. Roepcke was not found until hours after the crash, about 3 a.m. Sept. 2, and succumbed to his injuries in a local hospital Sept. 10.
Text message records indicate that Buckler had been drinking that evening, Dombrowski said.
Buckler was sentenced to a year in prison and has since been released. At her November 2012 sentencing, it was determined she would be allowed to spend that holiday season with her family. Buckler began her sentence on New Year’s Day in 2013.
Now, Buckler’s attorney Robert Hetherington said, she is remorseful and would like to be a nurse. However, her felony charge prevents her from realizing this particular dream, Hetherington said, as nurses cannot have felony charges on their records. Hetherington requested her sentence be changed to probation before judgment, which would have effectively expunged her record.
“Given her choice of profession, a felony conviction amounts to a life sentence,” Hetherington said. “It will forever keep her from being a nurse. ... She wants to give back, to make up for these tragic events. She has served her punishment.”
Dombrowski took strong exception to the defendant’s request, saying the state is “appalled” and “outraged” at her request. While Buckler was incarcerated, Dombrowski said, she was given both school and work release privileges, so the year she served was lenient.
Dombrowski also noted this is not Buckler’s first time hitting a person with her car: an accident she was in during 2008 when she struck a cyclist resulted in the cyclist developing epilepsy and suffering from complications related to the concussion he got. During the investigation of the incident that killed Roepcke, Dombrowski said Buckler told officers she had only ever struck deer.
In fact, Buckler said she thought she’d hit a deer the night she killed Roepcke, Dombrowski said. A text message Buckler received from a friend that evening read “Rachel-1, deer-0. Think of it that way,” according to phone records obtained by the state.
“This is the second time she’s hit a human being. Who does that?” Dombrowski asked. “The purpose is to punish her for leaving Mr. Roepcke on the side of the road to die. We don’t just go out, hit people and leave them there. ... Human beings matter. Thomas Roepcke matters. I know judges have a hard job. ... But I would think that one decision that’s always easy is that we value human life.”
The brother of the deceased, Tracy Roepcke, then took the floor. He recounted how the two of them had faced a lot of struggles in their early years together, but the struggles simply brought the pair closer together.
“The only permanent thing we had was each other,” Tracy Roepcke said. “Whenever possible, we went everywhere and did everything together.”
Tracy Roepcke said his brother was a “people person” through and through with a particular fondness for helping out teenagers and young adults and serving as a mentor of sorts for them.
“Even now, I am contacted by young people whose lives he touched,” Tracy Roepcke said of his brother. “[Buckler] has taken from us half a lifetime of joy and love and fond memories. ... She was more concerned about her own self-preservation.”
Both Tracy Roepcke and his wife, Lenise, herself a nurse, said they feel Buckler lacks the compassion, caring and empathy requisite of all nurses. Tracy Roepcke took particular issue with Buckler saying she mistook his brother for a deer, given the “hair, blood and bits of his clothing and bicycle” that were found on her vehicle.
“Thomas was loved,” Lenise Roepcke said. “Now [Buckler] wants to continue on her merry way. Why should her life be any easier? Plans change with the choices we make. Let her be glad she can be alive to make new plans. We are emotionally spent. Let her be glad she got off with a slap on the wrist. Don’t grant her the life she wants. Grant her the life she chose that night.”
Going back to the text Buckler’s friend sent her, Hetherington said it was not an affront but evidence she truly thought Thomas Roepcke was a deer.
“I am not trying to belittle what [the family] has to deal with,” Hetherington said. “But the felony conviction ruins a life and her chance to give back.”
Buckler cried through her statement to the court.
“I really do think about them on a daily basis,” Buckler said of the Roepcke family. “I don’t think I can wipe the slate clean. My only hope is that an opportunity to pursue a career helping others will still be given. ... I would spend the rest of my life attempting to be the best nurse I can be to make up.”
Bragunier’s statement was short and emphatically against giving Buckler the probation before judgment.
“She showed no mercy. I don’t believe my denial ... will be a loss to the nursing profession,” Bragunier said. “She could have saved a life, but she chose to save her own skin. Buckler’s life is not ruined. She still has one.”
Similarly, Lenise Roepcke was short but to the point after Bragunier’s decision.
“We’re glad justice was served for Thomas,” Lenise Roepcke said.
Tracy Roepcke also spoke of the ire he held for the state’s attorney’s office for allowing Buckler to plead guilty.
Speaking on Thursday afternoon in a phone interview, Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony “Tony” Covington (D) said he could not say exactly why Buckler had been afforded the Alford plea in the first place without going back and re-examining court records but did say such pleas are not uncommon.
Covington fully backed Bragunier’s decision.
“This is a person who took someone’s life,” Covington said. “I don’t think it would be right. Some things need to be on your record.”