A panel of Montgomery County judges significantly reduced the prison sentence of a drunk driver who killed three of his friends in a crash last year, saying he shouldn’t be held responsible for a broader culture of reckless conduct and underage drinking.

The three judges cut 12 years from Kevin Coffay’s 20-year sentence. They said he never intended to hurt his friends. Their revised sentence was more in line with Maryland guidelines. Still, under state rules, Coffay is eligible for parole as early as May of next year, according to prosecutors.

The judges’ ruling outraged the families of the three passengers killed in the crash.

“It sends a message to everyone: ‘If you want to drink and drive, come to Montgomery County,’ ” said John McGuire, the father of Haeley McGuire.

“I am shocked. I am outraged,” said Doug Datt, the father of Spencer Datt, adding that the sentence reduction also sent a message that the three victims’ lives “are virtually meaningless.”

Kevin Coffay, left, admits he was drunk when he crashed a car, killing three friends. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Coffay’s attorney, Michael McAuliffe, said that the whole case was terrible, including the devastation felt by his client, and that the judges properly did their job.

“The Coffay family thanks the panel for its careful consideration of the evidence before it,” he said. “The sentence today reflects the tragic facts of the case.”

On May 15, 2011, Coffay crashed a Toyota into a tree off the side of Olney-Laytonsville Road. While his friends were dead or dying, he crawled out from under an airbag and ran into the woods. He was caught several hours later. He was originally sentenced Jan. 5.

Under Maryland law, defendants can ask for a sentence review at the trial level within 30 days. The request was granted, setting the stage for Friday’s hearing.

About 200 people came to the courtroom, with supporters of Coffay tending to sit on the right side and supporters of the victims on the left. Outside of court, the case had created similar divisions in the Montgomery community of Derwood.

Adding to the tensions was the fact that the passengers who died, McGuire and Datt, both 18, and Johnny Hoover, 20, also had been drinking and were intoxicated at the time of the crash.

“Their ability to make good decisions was compromised,” said Montgomery Circuit Judge Terrence McGann, part of the panel along with Judges Cynthia Callahan and Gary Bair.

Friday’s hearing began with McAuliffe presenting his case to reduce the sentence. Kevin Coffay’s sister, Mary Ellen, a student at the University of South Carolina, spoke. She was also friends with one of the passengers, McGuire.

The wreck “took away a dear friend of mine forever, and it took away the truth about my family’s character,” Mary Ellen Coffay said.

She said her brother once had a contagious smile and made others laugh.

“I know the guilt he feels for driving the car, and leaving the scene that horrific night has left him a shell of a human being,” she said, standing about 20 feet from her brother — his head down, his face expressionless — wearing a blue Division of Correction shirt and a closely cropped haircut.

As McAuliffe told the judges, there was a surviving passenger who said that after the crash, Coffay yelled, “Everybody run!” That showed how he didn’t know what was going on, McAuliffe said.

Coffay also spoke during the hearing, saying that at night in prison, he talks to his three friends and asks them to forgive him.

“I ask God, ‘Why them and not me?’ ” Coffay said.

Prosecutor Bryan Roslund said the original 20-year sentence was deserved. Coffay raced the Toyota so fast it went airborne. Coffay killed three people, more than Montgomery police could recall in any previous alcohol-related wreck in which the driver survived. And Coffay was hardly honest after he fled, telling a friend he met up with that he thought he had hit a small animal.

Family members of the victims told the judges about their pain. Pat Hoover, Johnny’s father, said that sometimes late at night, in the quiet of his house, he can hear Johnny’s two brothers crying.

Datt, Spencer’s father, said parents can never get over such a tragedy — they can only try to get through it. “That’s what we do every minute, every hour, every day. We try to get through it,” he said.

Before issuing his ruling, McGann, speaking for the other two judges, called Coffay’s behavior grossly negligent. And he said that Coffay’s fleeing the scene was selfish, cowardly and “violated the moral code of mankind.”

After the hearing, Carolyn Hoover, Johnny’s mother, said: “Our kids did make a mistake for getting into that car. They paid for their mistake while Kevin Coffay gets a slap on the wrist.”

It is unclear when Coffay will be released from prison. By state rules, vehicular manslaughter is considered a nonviolent crime when it comes to parole matters, meaning Coffay would become eligible after serving a quarter of his sentence. But being eligible for parole does not mean he will be granted it.

Maryland also gives inmates reduction credits for good behavior and participating in programs while behind bars. Those factors likely will reduce his overall prison time regardless of parole hearings.

In addition, Coffay’s sentence actually started May 15, when he was originally arrested, even though he spent part of that time on house arrest.

John Maloney, a deputy state’s attorney in Montgomery County, said prosecutors were disappointed in the ruling. He said he hoped that Maryland would change its laws about sentence reviews, in part because they are difficult for survivors.

“It’s almost cruel to make families go through a second sentencing,” he said.