A Fairfax County man was sentenced yesterday to 16 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter after he slammed his sport-utility vehicle into a stranded motorist and then dragged the man's body more than eight miles down Interstate 95.
Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Arthur B. Vieregg ruled that the initial impact of the Mitsubishi Montero Sport was the cause of Fitsum Gebreegziabher's death, not the 8 1/2-mile drive that followed.
Fitsum Gebreegziabher was dragged eight miles.
Josuel P. Galdino, 26, had pleaded guilty in June, admitting that his SUV struck the back of a disabled Toyota Camry that was stopped in the left lane of I-95 in the Mixing Bowl area of Springfield. Although Galdino suspected that he had hit someone, he and his passenger, Eric Rios, said they did not know that Gebreegziabher, 27, was pinned beneath the vehicle as they drove to Galdino's home in Lorton about 4 a.m. Feb. 29.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Penney S. Azcarate asked Vieregg to impose the maximum sentence of 10 years. State sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of up to six months in jail. Vieregg ordered a five-year term, suspending all but 16 months.
Galdino has been in jail since the crash and has about eight more months to serve. After that, his attorneys said, they expect him to return to his native Brazil.
Gebreegziabher's family was not troubled by the sentence. "The whole family, they respect the sentence, and they forgive him," said Endalkachew Zewdie, who grew up with Gebreegziabher in Ethiopia. "There's a superior court for all this, which is a court of God."
Miriam Melles, Gebreegziabher's fiancee, sobbed as she said, "No matter what the sentence, I might not like it, but I know he [Gebreegziabher] went to a better place."
Gebreegziabher was of Eritrean descent. He lived in Toronto and had just graduated from college with an electrical engineering degree. He was visiting family members in Woodbridge last February.
Galdino worked as a housekeeper for an employee of the Brazilian Embassy. On the morning of Feb. 29, he and Rios had been dancing at Nation, a District nightclub, but apparently had not been drinking heavily. Prosecutors dropped a drunken driving charge after a blood test showed Galdino had no discernible alcohol in his system.
Vieregg noted that the autopsy showed the victim had been drinking and chose to change a tire "in a dangerous area that was under construction."
Gebreegziabher was standing behind the Camry when he was struck by Galdino's Montero Sport and became impaled on or stuck under the vehicle. Rios testified yesterday that he told Galdino to stop, but that Galdino drove home.
Galdino did not call police until about 6 a.m., reporting that he had struck a man on the highway. Officers responded to his home and found Gebreegziabher's body in the parking lot.
Prosecutors claimed that the dragging killed Galdino. But defense attorneys Daniel T. Lopez and Crystal A. Meleen called forensic pathologist Ronald K. Wright, a former deputy medical examiner of Miami-Dade County, Fla., to the stand.
Wright said he reviewed the autopsy report and was absolutely certain that the impact of Galdino's SUV killed Gebreegziabher. During his detailed testimony, some of Gebreegziabher's family left the courtroom in tears.
Wright said Gebreegziabher's neck was broken, his skull was severely fractured and his brain fatally damaged. "The injuries that killed him occurred less than a second after the impact," Wright said.
Azcarate asked whether Gebreegziabher could have suffered some of those injuries while being dragged down I-95, but Wright said that the dragging injuries were evident on Gebreegziabher's face and chest and he had no abrasions on the top or back of his skull, where Wright said the fatal trauma occurred.
Wright then got on the floor of the courtroom and demonstrated how he believed Gebreegziabher was dragged, face down, beneath the SUV. He theorized that Gebreegziabher's feet were caught at the front of the vehicle and his head was trapped underneath.
After the demonstration, Galdino addressed the judge quietly, and said, "I know that I made a mistake. . . . If I could exchange my whole life in prison to not feel this pain, I would." Friends and relatives testified and sent letters saying that Galdino was a sensitive, well-meaning young man. Vieregg acknowledged that, but added, "You had a duty to see him, and did not."