Drunk driver gets 9 years in fatal wrong-way Beltway crash

Cristina L. Palese was on her way home from work when a drunk driver going the wrong way on the Capital Beltway collided with her car, killing her instantly.
Cristina L. Palese was on her way home from work when a drunk driver going the wrong way on the Capital Beltway collided with her car, killing her instantly. (Family Photo)
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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

A man who was drunk and driving the wrong way on the Capital Beltway when he smashed into and killed a Fairfax County woman in March was sentenced to nine years in prison Thursday by the jury that convicted him the night before of aggravated involuntary manslaughter.

The crash occurred as Cristina L. Palese, a 28-year-old mother of two young children, was heading home to Springfield after working at the Cadillac Ranch restaurant at National Harbor. As she neared the Van Dorn Street exit on the inner loop, her Nissan Sentra was met head-on by a Lincoln LS sedan driven by Travis J. Isaac, 26, of Woodbridge, who had a previous conviction for drunken driving.

Palese was killed instantly. Isaac suffered a compound fracture in the leg. His blood alcohol level was measured at 0.16, twice the legal definition of intoxication in Virginia. He has been held in the Fairfax jail since the March 21 accident, which was not disclosed publicly by the Virginia State Police.

Palese was a popular waitress and bartender at several Northern Virginia restaurants, including the Hard Times Cafe in Springfield, for several years, and she had worked her way up to manager and event planner at the newly opened Cadillac Ranch. Her family said she had struggled through some tough times: Her son, Kyle, 9, was found to have cancer as a baby and required two years of treatment, and her mother died at age 59 in 2008.

"Even going through all that, she was just so positive, so upbeat," her sister Danielle Barber said. Palese was known to invent short, silly dances to cheer up friends and cover her own lack of dancing ability, her brother, Michael Palese, said.

Isaac has three children of his own, ages 8, 6 and 1, and he worked for his father at an electronics repair store. He also has a string of criminal convictions, including one in 2002 for drunken driving, as well as others for burglary, petty larceny, possession of marijuana, attempted firearm possession by a felon and driving on a suspended license. He had no license at the time of the crash, and he testified that he had no memory of the crash or his actions before it.

But obtaining a manslaughter conviction was no sure thing for Fairfax prosecutors. For one thing, state police were able to locate only one witness to the crash, an off-duty Metro Transit Police officer who said there were 40 cars on that part of the inner loop at 3:30 a.m.

The officer, Michael Weinsheimer, said he saw a set of headlights go by, as other cars veered out of the way, and then heard a boom and saw spinning lights in his rearview mirror. But he could not definitively describe either of the cars involved, opening the door to a second theory by defense attorney James Freeman.

Perhaps Palese was the one driving the wrong way, Freeman said. That allowed Freeman to introduce evidence of Palese's blood alcohol content: 0.09, also legally drunk.

The police's accident reconstruction data might be expected to clear up which car was going which way. But under Virginia law, police reconstruction analysis is not admissible in criminal court, lawyers said. Skid marks or other physical evidence might be allowed, but calculations about speed, momentum and impact are too imprecise to allow testimony about them, the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled. Maryland and the District do not have similar restrictions.

"There is no one that is able to identify which vehicle was going the wrong way," Freeman argued to the jury. "The law says you cannot base a verdict on sympathy."

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Camille Turner noted that Weinsheimer saw a red car, the color of Palese's Nissan, going west, and a black car, the color of Isaac's Lincoln, going east. Freeman's theory had "no evidence to support" it, Turner said.

The jury took two hours to convict Isaac, setting up Thursday's sentencing hearing, where he faced a possible prison term of 20 years.

Isaac took the stand at that hearing and, in an emotion-racked courtroom, took full responsibility. "There are no words I can come up with that even begin to express how sorry I am for what happened," he said, as his own family and the Paleses collapsed in tears. "I think about her children. I pray for her family every night. Every night."

Freeman produced a letter of apology that Isaac had written shortly after the accident, which Freeman had withheld until the trial was over.

Palese's sister said she was "always with the kids." She showed her daughter Madeline flash cards in her crib, her husband Chris Mickey said. She was a committed soccer mom for her son, making the team banner every year and persuading each team to have a snake mascot so she wouldn't have to rework the banner's design.

The jury took nearly three hours before imposing the nine-year sentence. The Paleses were stunned. "It's kind of a slap on the wrist to me," Barber said. Isaac will be eligible for release when he is 33.

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