A Montgomery County teenager who was found responsible for causing a collision on East West Highway that killed two high school friends and a Potomac man last year was ordered yesterday to spend 30 days in a juvenile detention facility.
Michael Schoenfeld, 17, was led from the courtroom in handcuffs as his mother collapsed in sobs. Speaking publicly about the collision for the first time, the teenager apologized to the judge and the tearful family members of those who died.
"Killing your best friend--it's hard to go through life knowing that," Schoenfeld said as his voice choked with emotion and he took off his glasses to wipe his eyes. "I don't know what I can say except I'm sorry for what I did. I'm sorry--that's all I can say."
Noting that the juvenile court system is designed to rehabilitate, rather than punish, Montgomery District Court Judge Eric M. Johnson also ordered Schoenfeld, of Takoma Park, to perform 500 hours of volunteer work related to educating other teenagers about the dangers of reckless driving.
Juvenile justice officials said it is rare for juveniles in vehicular manslaughter cases to be committed to the Charles H. Hickey School in Baltimore County, the maximum-security juvenile facility where Schoenfeld will be committed for one month.
Several Montgomery lawyers familiar with the case said juveniles in such cases usually are ordered to do extensive community service and restrictions are placed on their drivers' licenses. However, they said, because the case involved several fatalities, the judge probably wanted to send a public message about the dangers of reckless driving.
In July, Johnson found Schoenfeld "involved"--the juvenile court equivalent of guilty--after an emotionally charged, four-day trial on three counts of vehicular manslaughter and the traffic offense of reckless driving.
Montgomery prosecutors Cheryl McCally and Marc Hall argued that Schoenfeld had shown "gross negligence" when he drove his parents' Subaru Outback station wagon on July 14, 1998. Though his mother testified that she had lent him the car with the understanding that he would drive with only one passenger, the station wagon was crammed with five other teenagers who needed rides home from summer school classes at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
Prosecutors said Schoenfeld, who had gotten his driver's license two weeks earlier, was speeding on East West Highway between Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues. After swerving between other cars and causing the station wagon to fishtail, prosecutors said, Schoenfeld lost control on a downhill curve going 68 mph--more than twice the posted speed limit.
Two other teenagers in the car testified at the trial that they had screamed for Schoenfeld to slow down before the Subaru slid 150 feet across the center line and struck a pickup truck driven by John Francis Wert, 40, a father of three young girls who was driving to a business appointment.
The station wagon then went airborne, flipped and landed on Wert's truck and an Acura. Wert died, as did two of Schoenfeld's passengers, Matthew Waymon and Irn "Nu" Williams, both 16.
Johnson called Schoenfeld a "risk-taker" who needed to undergo the 30-day Impact program at the Hickey school to understand the consequences of his driving.
Bob Kannenberg, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, said the Impact program is designed to help young offenders understand the effect their crimes have on their victims. Hickey has had "maybe a handful" of youths committed for vehicular manslaughter over the past 10 years, Kannenberg said.
Defense attorney David Driscoll had asked the judge to spare Schoenfeld detention, saying that he is "still a boy" and already had taken steps to improve himself and accept responsibility. Schoenfeld has voluntarily turned in his driver's license, is undergoing counseling with his parents and has improved his grades, his lawyer argued.
Driscoll told the judge that Schoenfeld, who was badly injured in the collision, couldn't remember it.
"I wake up every morning thinking this is a nightmare and realize it wasn't," Schoenfeld, now a high school senior, told the judge in his brief remarks. "I was lucky. I hate to say it. I was the lucky one. I'm alive. God saved me for some reason. I wish He had saved Matt, Nu and John Wert. I wish I could bring them back, but there's nothing I can do."
During the hearing, Hartley Abraham Sr., whose son, Hartley Jr., has undergone nine surgeries since the accident, turned to the defense table, where Schoenfeld sat quietly next to his lawyer.
"I'm glad you're taking physical education [in school] because my son can't take it," Abraham said. "He can't run. One of his legs is shorter than the other. . . . My question to you, Michael, is when they told you to stop, why didn't you?"
As the quiet courtroom emptied out and filled with the clicking sounds of the handcuffs closing around the teenager's wrists, his mother, Lucy Schoenfeld, let out tearful shrieks and crumbled into the arms of her son's attorney.
Several families of those killed and injured in the collision have sued Schoenfeld, and those suits are still pending, Driscoll said.