Gueorgui Makharadze, the Georgian Embassy official who killed a teenage girl in a spectacular drunk-driving crash in Washington last winter, was sentenced to seven to 21 years in prison yesterday, climaxing a long-running drama in which a grieving mother's public campaign for justice prevailed over the legal precept of diplomatic immunity.
Makharadze, 36, who was the second-highest-ranking official at the Georgian Embassy in Washington before the Jan. 3 crash, appeared dazed and overwhelmed by the highly charged atmosphere in D.C. Superior Court. About 80 people jammed the spectator gallery in Courtroom 201, including some of Makharadze's former colleagues and the family of the dead girl, 16-year-old Joviane Waltrick.
At one point, Makharadze turned to Waltrick's mother, Viviani Wagner, whose campaign to have his diplomatic immunity lifted gained international attention after the crash. In a quavering voice, he begged her for forgiveness. And he said he wanted the four people who were injured in the crash to know that he regrets what he did.
Wagner was seated in the front row with her husband and two sons, ages 11 and 12. She cried as Makharadze struggled with the words. But she did not acknowledge his apology.
"I only wish I could undo what I have done," Makharadze said. "I can only pray and ask forgiveness from the victims, their families, my country and this country. It's very difficult, Mrs. Wagner. I want you to know how difficult the pain is. For the rest of my life, I pray for Joviane. Every day I will pray. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Only you have the power to forgive. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. It's very difficult for me. I don't know what to say."
Defense attorneys described Makharadze as a caring and professionally accomplished man whose criminal conduct was an aberration. But the prosecutor likened him to a street hoodlum.
Wagner told Judge Harold L. Cushenberry Jr. that Makharadze's recklessness destroyed her "dream" -- and said she once had wanted to kill him.
As part of a plea bargain, prosecutors agreed not to object to Makharadze's request to serve his sentence in a federal prison rather than the District's Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County. Cushenberry, who recommended yesterday that the federal Bureau of Prisons accept Makharadze as an inmate, ordered him held at the D.C. jail until the bureau makes its decision. Prosecutors said they expect the bureau will honor the judge's recommendation.
But Makharadze will be subject to District sentencing rules, meaning his maximum stay in prison will be 21 years, with parole eligibility after he has served seven years.
Wagner, who immigrated to the United States last year from Brazil, spoke in court yesterday in her native Portuguese. She delivered one sentence at a time, translated by an interpreter. Unlike Makharadze, she wept as she spoke.
"After the accident, the press was asking me how I felt, knowing it was a diplomat who took my daughter's life and he would not pay for it," she said.
"The question I posed to myself was: Why? Why did it have to be my daughter? Why did it have to be a diplomat? Why didn't a diplomat have to pay for it?"
Wagner said that she had waited months for an apology from Makharadze and that she thought she would get one in July, when the two encountered each other outside a courtroom before a pretrial hearing in the case. However, Wagner told the judge, "Mr. Makharadze looked at me so cold and so arrogantly that my wish at that moment was to take his life."
Makharadze acknowledged that he saw Wagner in the hall that July day while he was with a group of people and that "I did not stop talking." He added: "I understand how this was perceived. Hearing this, I don't know what to say."
The case generated powerful emotions almost from the moment Makharadze's 1997 Ford Taurus slammed into a line of cars waiting at 11:40 p.m. at a Dupont Circle stoplight in Northwest Washington, setting off a chain reaction that killed Waltrick, of Kensington.
Prosecutors said that Makharadze did not apply the car's brakes before the crash and that he was driving about three times the posted speed limit of 25 mph after a dinner during which he had been drinking wine. Hospital tests after the crash revealed that Makharadze's blood alcohol level had been at least 0.15 percent at the time of the crash and may have been as high as 0.19. The legal limit for driving in the District is 0.10 percent.
No charges were filed against Makharadze that night because of his diplomatic immunity. Within days, however, Wagner began pressuring U.S. officials and the Georgian government. Six weeks after the crash, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze took the unusual step of waiving Makharadze's immunity, with Makharadze's consent.
That cleared the way for Makharadze's indictment on charges of involuntary manslaughter and four counts of aggravated assault on the four injured victims of the crash. He pleaded guilty to all charges in October and was jailed pending yesterday's sentencing.
Patricia McQueen, whose car was turned upside down by the impact of the collision, said in court that she also was astounded by the failure of Makharadze to contact her afterward. She told the judge that she still suffers from poor short-term memory and wrenching back pain and sometimes experiences flashbacks and hyperventilates when she hears loud noises.
The defense submitted more than 150 letters from people who expressed admiration and empathy for Makharadze, a friend and former adviser of Shevardnadze's. They said Makharadze once was viewed as a rising star in Georgian politics. Tedo Japaridze, Georgia's ambassador to the United States, described him as an "outstanding individual," a view that was echoed by dozens of professional acquaintances and friends here and abroad.
Defense attorneys E. Lawrence Barcella Jr. and Kirby D. Behre gave the judge a videotape of numerous testimonials, including one from Lily Makharadze, the defendant's mother. "I would like to express my condolences to the family of the victim and especially to the mother," Lily Makharadze said, according to a typed translation. "There's only one thing that I plead her to believe. I did not raise a villain. Both her daughter and my son became the victims."
Barcella said Makharadze did not realize he was drunk the night of the crash and was an inexperienced driver. He said Makharadze still believes that he applied the car's brakes and that they failed.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said tests found the brakes on the almost new car to be in good working order. And, he said, Makharadze should have known the danger of drinking and driving, especially at such a speed. He had been cited for traffic violations in May 1996 in Virginia and in August 1996 in the District. In the latter incident, police said, Makharadze appeared drunk after nearly causing an accident, but they did not test him because of his diplomatic status. An officer said he warned Makharadze that his actions could kill someone.
Gansler said Makharadze felt "untouchable and above the law."
He and Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Winfree called for a sentence of 10 to 30 years in prison. Defense attorneys, who did a study of sentencing patterns, said the typical range for the crimes to which Makharadze pleaded guilty was probation to four years in prison.
Cushenberry said this case was not typical, considering Makharadze's earlier traffic citations. "Perhaps because of the shield of diplomatic immunity, Mr. Makharadze was not confronted with the all-too-certain consequences of driving while intoxicated," the judge said.
"Perhaps, had it not been for the shield of diplomatic immunity, Mr. Makharadze would have altered his behavior. Perhaps had he done so earlier, Miss Joviane Waltrick would be alive today." CAPTION: Viviani Wagner, mother of victim Joviane Waltrick, 16, leaves court with Joviane's brothers. Wagner launched a campaign for justice after her daughter was killed in the crash caused by Georgian diplomat Gueorgui Makharadze. CAPTION: Viviani Wagner leaves court with her sons, Jose Melero Neto, left, and Ricardo Melero, and her husband, Jose Melero Filho.