- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A Pomfret woman who was convicted of killing a man when she crashed into him in 2011 was sent back to prison for two years Friday.
Stephanie Ann Orbits, 42, struck and killed motorcyclist Philip Lyle Woodford Jr., a 52-year-old father of three children, while attempting a U-turn at the intersection of U.S. 301 and Demarr Road in White Plains. Orbits had been drinking at Martini’s Lounge nearby that evening and had a 0.15 blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash.
Woodford was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. Orbits pleaded guilty to negligent vehicular manslaughter before Circuit Judge Robert C. Nalley and received an eight-year sentence with all but three of those suspended. Orbits was released on probation Dec. 17, according to court records.
At her 2012 sentencing, Nalley, whom Orbits appeared before again on Friday, stipulated in her terms of probation that she was expressly forbidden from entering any place that sold alcohol throughout her probation. The probation order specifically forbade her from entering Martini’s.
Pictures of Orbits at Martini’s on New Year’s Eve with owner Pete Hamelman, her boyfriend, were posted on Facebook. Orbits also was seen drinking at Bobby Rucci’s Famous Italian Deli & Doughboys, owned by the District 4 Charles County commissioner.
Rucci (D) and commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) both wrote letters to the court in support of Orbits in summer 2012. Rucci’s testified to her character, while Kelly’s, written on commissioner letterhead, urged leniency. Both personally are acquainted with Orbits, and Kelly described her as “a friend” in her letter.
Orbits’ lawyer, La Plata defense attorney Hammad Matin, contended that Orbits was unaware of the specifics of her probation terms, and also cited vague and “overly broad” language — specifically, the part about “avoiding” alcohol dispensaries — as a reason for her confusion.
“People say avoid red meat, avoid smoking,” Matin said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean don’t do it.”
Matin said Orbits was never given a copy of her probation order. The day she was sentenced, Orbits signed the order herself before being taken away for incarceration. Nalley also noted that admittedly, the terms of her probation did not specifically forbid her from drinking.
Orbits also had been working at Martini’s, as troopers from the Maryland State Police discovered during an undercover check at the restaurant Jan. 31. Orbits was arrested there Feb. 7.
“The whole defense is that she was unaware,” Matin said. Orbits’ probation officer, Margaret Tippett, said Orbits appeared “visibly upset” when the two discussed what she had done and had said Orbits wasn’t aware of her violation.
“There has to be a knowledge component here,” Matin said, noting the mental duress Orbits was under the day she was sentenced. “Nobody reads a damn thing when they sign it. It’s one thing if you’re given a copy, and it’s another if it’s read at you and read at you fast. The evidence the state provides ... is that she was only notified at the time of her sentencing.”
Matin urged Nalley to dismiss the violation or simply note it for the record and take no action against her. Charles County Assistant State’s Attorney Francis J. Granados took a decidely different stance.
“[Orbits] got the same process anyone else gets,” Granados said, noting that the day she was sentenced, Nalley addressed that particular condition of her probation at length. “This isn’t a pass-the-buck-type of game. There’s no excuse.”
Granados noted that when Orbits initially was incarcerated at the Charles County jail for her violation, she told Hamelman over the phone to deactivate her Facebook account, which Granados felt indicated she thought she had something to hide.
While on the witness stand Friday, Orbits repeatedly said all she could recall from the day of her sentencing was very limited.
“I remember getting eight years. I remember handcuffs. I remember a jail cell,” Orbits said. “I was in shock. I was numb, very emotional.”
Orbits acknowledged signing all the paperwork but didn’t recall the specifics.
Granados noted that Orbits was drinking openly despite being enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It’s not like I went out and got completely wasted,” Orbits said during cross examination, adding that she had thought about whether or not she was going to drink and then did so anyway when Granados inquired about her thought process.
Granados also cited a different phone call between Orbits and Hamelman, in which she told him she felt the state was “persecuting” her and contemplated trying to share her story on the television program “20/20.” In the course of that call, Orbits also said Woodford had been drunk at the time of the crash and pointed to the fact that his wife had bought a bar, Woody’s Tavern in La Plata, after his death.
“What we have here is a case of selective memory. Willful ignorance is not a defense,” Granados said. “She should have known darn well, if this were unsupervised probation, it would be a done deal. The fact that she has an agent ... does not absolve her of knowing.”
Matin countered that the state’s assertions would make sense had Orbits been noncompliant with officers, but had in fact cooperated and not resisted her arrest.
“She’s been respectful to every single segment of her journey,” Matin said, calling her lack of knowledge of the terms of her probation “a systemic failure.”
“I’m not blaming the court ... but that’s what occurred,” Matin said. “We’re asking for someone to be aware of conditions stated orally 15 months prior to her release. She honestly literally was unaware. This is a good faith error. This is a mistake, and I don’t think incarceration ... is necessary.”
Nalley was unconvinced by Matin’s assertions.
“Your ignorance is willful. You chose not to inform yourself,” Nalley said. “What more can we do ... short of tattooing it? There’s no question it was put in writing. There’s no question she had it in front of her and signed it.”
“She was right back at the scene of the crime. What do we do with that?” Granados asked of Orbits’ actions. “She didn’t care to be on notice. You can’t rehabilitate someone who thinks they have done nothing wrong. Don’t give her the chance to kill anyone else.”
“Martini’s is [Orbits’] family,” Matin said. “That’s her environment, and I can guarantee ... if she had known, she wouldn’t have been back there. This is overkill.”
Nalley said her purported lack of knowledge struck him as “if not perjury then at best being disingenuous.”
Woodford’s family was present in court but declined to speak, both in court and to a newspaper reporter.
Speaking Monday, Rucci said he had seen Orbits once since her release, and that Hamelman had assured him she was allowed in the restaurant when asked.
Kelly said this was the first she had heard of the violation.
“I didn’t know, so I guess you could say she’s not that good of a friend,” Kelly said. “Addiction is a terrible thing. I think she needs to go back to jail for violating her probation. I certainly wish her well, and hopefully she gets the treatment she needs. It’s sad all the way around. My prayers go to her and the Woodford family.”
Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) said Nalley’s sentence “was very fair and merciful.”
“It appears, and I think the court agreed ... that she didn’t really seem to have very much remorse,” Covington said Tuesday. “The court was very clear, and she flagrantly violated her probation.”
Covington, whose own father was killed by a drunk driver, called Orbits’ crime one of the most preventable.
“Nobody takes it more seriously than I do because I’ve seen the impact. It has a devastating effect,” Covington said. “And from just a professional standpoint, it’s preventable. ... With just a little bit of caring about yourself and your fellow man this could be avoided. And that’s why it’s so frustrating for me and law enforcement and society because people are dying needlessly.”