Coffay, sobbing and rocking as he stood to hear his sentence, said he did not know there were people in the car when he walked away from the wreck. If he had, he said, he would have stayed.
“I never intended to leave my friends,” Coffay said. He said that the night of the crash was “such a blur” and that when he came to on the grass, he felt “overwhelming fear and terror.”
Throughout the three-hour hearing, a line of parents and siblings of the victims stepped up — and through tears or with sharp anger, and sometimes with both — shared intimate memories to underscore their losses: of a niece writing to the tooth fairy, a brother swapping music, a son strong and tall at his basketball games.
The families, the state’s attorney and the judge said they wanted to send a message about underage drinking and driving that would go beyond the nearly 300 people seated and standing shoulder to shoulder inside the Montgomery County courtroom.
A “culture of recklessness” must end, said Judge Theresa M. Adams as she prepared to deliver Coffay’s sentence. Adults not only tolerate but “sometimes empower” it, she said. And addressing “all those young people in the courtroom: It must stop.”
Adams imposed a 40-year sentence and suspended all but 20 years. Coffay’s attorney had asked that his client receive no more than 18 months.
Coffay, who was a student at James Madison University, pleaded guilty in November to three counts of vehicular manslaughter and one count of failing to remain at the scene of the crash on Olney-Laytonsville Road. He will be eligible for parole after five years, prosecutors said.
“The sentence will never bring back Johnny, Haeley or Spencer,” said Hoover’s mother, Carolyn Hoover. “But the judge did what the prosecutors asked her to, and that’s the best we could hope.”
The hearing drew together members of the usually tight Magruder High School community. Coffay, the three people killed and a survivor who said he watched as Coffay ran into woods after the crash without saying a word, all had attended the school.
Inside the courtroom, the deep divide that pits neighbor against neighbor was evident both in statements from family members and comments whispered as relatives of both Coffay and the victims described the heartache the May crash caused.
Listening was a cluster of girls in matching fluorescent-colored hoodies embroidered with “happiness” and adorned with buttons showing photos of Hoover and of McGuire. Across the aisle, a thin young man squeezed his girlfriend’s hand and unhappily muttered, “Geez, they’re sending [Coffay] away for nearly his life.”
Coffay, who may have been spared by an air bag, made a “cowardly choice,” prosecutors said.
“It is horrible to simply abandon your friends as they are dying for no other reason than to try to avoid the consequences for your actions,” they wrote in their sentencing request.
Before Coffay crashed, his surviving passenger had asked him to slow down as he entered a curve, the survivor told police. That back-seat survivor, Charles Nardella, 19, of Gaithersburg, is in a drug rehabilitation program for an addiction he developed in the wake of the wreck, prosecutor Bryan Roslund said in court.
When police found Coffay at 6 a.m., three hours after the crash — after he had run away from officers tracking him with dogs — his blood-alcohol level was 0.16, twice the legal limit in Maryland, according to court records. When told by police that his friends had died, Coffay said, “What? They were fine when I left,” court files say.
Coffay’s mother, Ellen Coffay, told the court that she takes fault for a “lack of parenting” as she and her husband battled illness: she, breast cancer, and her husband, advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She apologized, saying, “There’s nothing I can do to take away the raw pain” of the victims’ families.
“I’m sad our community has become so divided and so full of anger,” she said.
John McGuire, Haeley McGuire’s father, didn’t attend the sentencing but gave a statement to a family member to read aloud. In it, he wrote that he could not bear to come because “I don’t want to give Kevin [Coffay] the opportunity to unburden himself” with an apology. “ ‘I’m sorry’ is not enough.”
John McGuire added that he cries every day and thinks that he has failed his daughter. “I didn’t do my job. I didn’t protect Haeley.”
Carolyn Hoover, whose voice rose as she spoke of her son, said Coffay had “left him there like he was trash.”
And Spencer Datt’s father, Douglas Datt, discounted suggestions by Coffay’s supporters that “the defendant” — a word he hit hard on every syllable — had suffered enough.
“Every morning, I walk down to my boy’s room and . . .” He couldn’t finish the thought. He looked down, then straight at the judge, saying, “There’s a sadness in my wife’s eyes I cannot make go away.”