Tearful apology for fatal Hartland interstate crash after family of victim urges court to emphasize rehabilitation
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION - The head-on crash in Hartland five months ago that claimed the life of a Perkinsville woman who’d been cautiously driving up Interstate 91 in a pounding rainstorm with her young son in the backseat was the focus of an emotional sentencing hearing this past week at the Windsor County Superior Courthouse.
“The terrible things that you have experienced as a result of my actions will always haunt me,” Joshua Rondeau, 38, of Charlestown, New Hampshire said after he turned, with tears on his face, to address the family members of victim Laura McNaughton seated in the courtroom rows behind him.
Breaking into sobs, Rondeau said he was “deeply sorry” for causing the crash that left McNaughton dead at the scene and injured her 8-year-old son and he thanked Judge Timothy Tomasi for accepting a sentencing proposal put forward by McNaughton’s husband which will not require Rondeau to spend any time away from his own family in jail.
The entirely suspended 1-to-2 year sentence places Rondeau on probation for 30 months and requires him to complete 400 hours of community service in response to his guilty plea to negligent operation of a vehicle with a fatality resulting.
Addressing the court, Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill said what struck him about all 69 vehicular deaths that have occurred in crashes across Vermont this past year is “not a single one of those fatalities was unavoidable.”
“Not a single one was the result of a boulder falling on the highway or a manufacturer’s defect,” Cahill noted. “Every single one of them involved a poor decision made by a human being.”
Turning specifically to the crash near Exit 9 on the morning of June 28th, Cahill said there were those who might view the fact that Rondeau’s pickup truck came down a hill too fast and hydroplaned clear across the grassy median of interstate into oncoming traffic as “an unfortunate accident.”
“Who could have seen it coming?” Cahill wondered aloud, before adding, “But the reality is that just about everyone else on the highway saw it coming, which is why they slowed down or pulled over,” in the midst of the torrential downpour that morning.
“This situation was particularly avoidable because Mr. Rondeau had had many other scrapes with the law,” involving motor vehicle infractions, Cahill continued, noting that Rondeau’s record includes an attempt to elude police that resulted in injury, instances of drunk driving and multiple speeding tickets. “So he should have learned his lesson before and he didn’t for whatever reason,” Cahill concluded.
In his own statement, which was read out loud in the courtroom by a victim’s advocate and directly addressed Rondeau, Ethan McNaughton wrote that “from the outset I have advocated with the state’s attorney that you not serve any time behind bars. It is important to me that you are able to continue providing for your family…there has been enough pain.”
McNaughton explained to the court that his wife of more than 20 years had risen to be Vermont’s youngest district director for the Department of Health based on a career in which she had worked on a number of programs designed to reduce the harm caused by different kinds of “high risk” behaviors.
After talking to crash investigators who had examined the “black box” computer chip linked to the airbags in his wife’s car, McNaughton wrote, “I learned that my wife was traveling below the speed limit that day due to the torrential downpour. She never even hit 60 mph on the interstate. (Yet) Mr. Rondeau, despite the conditions…was traveling above the speed limit, (much) faster than Laura, leading to the loss of control of his vehicle and her death. Mr. Rondeau failed to wear his own seatbelt and chose to drive at an unsafe speed despite having his own children in the vehicle with him,” at the time.
“My wife’s death was preventable and inexcusable,” McNaughton concluded, noting, “My fervent hope is that today is a formality and the real learning and determination to do better has already taken place.”
As he explained why he was handing down a suspended sentence, especially given Rondeau’s prior record, Judge Tomasi told Rondeau from the bench that it was a “difficult decision” to forego a more punitive response but “I think probably Laura might adopt Ghandi’s statement that ‘an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind’."
“The McNaughton family’s generosity of spirit is important in this case,” the judge continued, “and the proposed sentence does have the goal of rehabilitation that they feel is most important. It also does carry with it the possibility of jail time if you don’t step up to the plate which is also incumbent upon this court given the seriousness of the charge.”
The judge also said he had been swayed by letters on behalf of Rondeau which included "many positive statements about your service, your hard work, and about your being a loving father, husband and strong worker who made some horrible decisions that had some truly tragic results.”
“I understand why you used the word ‘haunted’ in your statement,” Judge Tomasi told Rondeau before adding, “But I would take the presumption from (her husband’s) statement that I heard that Laura might hope instead that this would inspire you, inspire you to be a safe driver forever and that you would pass that along to your children and grandchildren.”
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