WRC-TV reporter Kelly Burke, who pleaded guilty to a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol after an accident that left one of his Poolesville neighbors dead, was fined $500 yesterday and placed on unsupervised probation for two years, on the condition that he produce a documentary on the consequences of drunk driving.
Burke, who also pleaded guilty to failure to stay in the proper lane, could have been sentenced to 60 days in jail and fined as much as $1,000. His probation drew immediate criticism from the victim's family and from local chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD).
"We're very displeased with the sentencing and we were very displeased before, when the charges were reduced," Virginia Bright, vice president of Montgomery County MADD, said, referring to an agreement under which Burke had pleaded guilty in November to the two charges.
In exchange, the prosecutors had agreed to drop the more serious charge against Kelly of homicide with a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
"We feel that Mr. Kelly Burke did take the life of a person and he's not being held accountable for his action," Bright said.
Louis L. Herzog, president of MADD's Northern Virginia chapter, called the sentence "no deterent" and asked: "Why doesn't he Burke make a stirring documentary by going to jail for 60 days and talk to all the drunk drivers? Then go out and interview victim survivors. . . . Jail would tell every person in the Washington area that if you drink and you drive and you kill someone you have to pay with your own liberty."
The sentence was levied by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge William Cave after Dennis L. Crouch's 29-year-old widow stirred the packed Rockville courtroom with testimony of how her "perfect" life was shattered by the July 1 head-on collison.
Sandra Leigh Crouch, a Montgomery police officer, testified as the prosecution's only witness after the defense called a string of Burke's supporters to testify on the award-winning reporter's character and professional achievements.
"All the facts we heard today do not change the one thing I want to change: My husband Dennis is dead," Crouch said, weeping.
"I miss my husband so much. My life was perfect, with our baby on the way," sobbed Crouch, who was eight months pregnant with the couple's first child, a daughter, when her husband, a county transportation department employe, was killed.
"We talked about what a wonderful person Kelly Burke is. Well, Dennis was also a wonderful person. He wanted to live," Crouch continued. "It's so hard to believe that because Kelly Burke did so many noteworthy things, he should be forgiven."
Dennis Crouch's mother echoed that testimony in remarks after the sentencing.
"I'm not too happy. My son got a sentence of death," said a tearful Jean Crouch, 61, of Silver Spring, as her 64-year-old husband Emmett nodded in agreement and held her elbow in support.
"Kelly Burke is going to further his career on the basis of an accident that killed my son," she said. "Our sentencing should be harder."
Yesterday Burke offered to make the televison program, telling Judge Cave that a public service program on the consequences of drunk driving was a way "to salvage life" out of the carnage of the crash.
"If that deters one individual from getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol or if it saves one life, then I expect you and I will both feel better," Cave said to Burke.
Addressing the courtroom, where Sandra Leigh Crouch and others wept softly, the judge added: "There is nothing I can do that can right the loss, that can repay the family."
Cave then imposed the sentence.
Crouch's widow testified yesterday that she had heard Burke say during a recent speech at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School that he had had 11 glasses of wine the night before the 6:17 a.m. crash near Darnestown.
"With all the knowledge Mr. Burke had about drunk driving and his supposed great concern about children, I wonder why he decided to drive and didn't think about what could happen?" she said.
Facing her for the first time, Burke turned toward Crouch and asked her to recognize "the toll on both sides."
"There's nothing I can do or say, just as I can never know the depths of your pain . . . ," he said.