"I realize that a lot of people think that what Kevin has been sentenced to is not very demanding," said Jack Tunell, father of the Fairfax teenager convicted of manslaughter and drunken driving. "But one of the things that the judge sentenced him to is a constant, conscious reminder of what happened."
What happened is that after 17-year-old Fairfax High School senior Kevin Tunell had left a New Year's Eve party, the car he was driving crashed into one driven by 18-year-old Susan Herzog, killing her.
Last week, Judge Michael J. Valentine, of the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, sentenced Kevin to court-supervised probation until age 21 and loss of his driver's license for the same time period. Valentine reserved the right to sentence Kevin to jail if he violates the terms of his probation.
Around this sentence swirls a debate on whether the teen-ager has been asked to pay a stiff enough penalty. Some people also have questioned Valentine's handling of the sentencing.
"I feel it's a relatively light price for this young man to pay for what he did," said Louis Herzog, the victim's father. Herzog said he had asked the judge to sentence Kevin to a year in jail, the maximum sentence.
"I know that sounds vindictive to a lot of people," he said. "But I don't dislike the kid. I dislike what the kid did. He chose to go out and get drunk and drive his car at a high rate of speed and kill my daughter."
Herzog and his wife Patricia filed a $1.5-million lawsuit against Kevin Tunell earlier this month. And Louis Herzog said after the hearing last week that he would like to have Kevin's sentence reviewed.
"I don't think it was a very good sentence," said John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who said he has spoken to Kevin Tunell several times. "There was not enough direction in the sentence."
The judge did not detail in court what Kevin's public service would entail, saying later that he would leave that to the youth's probation officer.
Edward Kunec, president of a Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) chapter in Fairfax, also disputed the sentence. "I thought the judge was a little bit lenient in that the defendant in this case didn't get time in some minimum security place," Kunec said. "I understand that it's inappropriate to put someone like this in a maximum security area with hardened criminals, but there should be a place that people like this could be denied their freedom for awhile."
While Judge Valentine would not comment on the case, the reasoning behind his decision is explained in a three-page opinion he delivered from the bench before the sentencing.
"The debt you owe Susan Herzog and her family can never be repaid," Valentine told Kevin as the youth stood silently before him. "This court shares the outrage of the community, but I do not intend to let the community vent its collective spleen by offering you up as a sacrifice. Incarcerating this juvenile will not bring Susan Herzog back to life."
Several court employes close to the judge said Valentine, 34, is incensed by the charges that he was too easy on Kevin. The workers said that the judge is supported by colleagues who argue that the sentence was a reasonable one since Kevin had no prior record.
Steven A. Merril, Fairfax deputy commonwealth's attorney, who prosecuted the case, said he was disturbed that Valentine's statement was pre-written. "We didn't take any recess after the hearing where he could have written an opinion," said Merril. "Many judges write opinions, but they do it after they hear the case."
Fairfax County Circuit Judge Richard J. Jamborsky said that judges often are instructed to prepare opinions in advance in controversial cases to avoid making mistakes by speaking from the top of their heads while sentencing from the bench. "That's pretty usual," he said.
Kevin Tunell's father Jack said he felt critics were "coming down rather hard" in accusing Judge Valentine of making "a snap judgment."
"I don't think anything came out in the trial that materially changed the facts," Tunell said.
Added Kevin's mother Patricia: "I feel that it was a fair sentence, and I hope it isn't too stiff on Kevin. The judge is expecting a whole lot of Kevin."
The family "felt fortunate that I am not in jail," said Kevin. "Mentally, I was ready to go to jail. I feel what I did was wrong . . . but I feel I can do a lot more good talking to people than being in jail."
Although details of his speaking engagements are still being worked out, Kevin said he expects to speak to school and other local groups and to teen-age drivers at the time they're issued their first licenses.
Kevin's sentencing came at a time when Virginia lawmakers are embroiled in debating several bills that would stiffen drunken driving penalties.
"I feel very affected by the Herzog case," said Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), who represents the area in which the Herzogs live. "The rightness of the judge's decision will depend upon how demanding the year of community service really is."
Fairfax County school board member Carmin Caputo said that if Kevin can effectively put across his message, "he can be a warning to others that that is a super-serious thing and not taken lightly."
"I guess this is a pretty weird sentence to give somebody," said Kevin. "And I guess Judge Valentine has placed a lot of confidence in me. I don't plan to let him down. . . . Having to relive Dec. 31 over and over every week is not going to be the best time in my life, but it is something I have to do."