Friday, March 12, 2010 -
WILMINGTON, Del. — The paraplegic who struck and killed a Delaware City firefighter as she tended to an injured motorcyclist on Dec. 20, 2008, was sentenced to life in prison plus 26 years today.
The life sentence for Joseph M. Taye Jr., who was operating his car's pedals with a stick because he does not have use of his legs, was a minimum mandatory because Superior Court Judge Jerome O. Herlihy ruled that the victim, Michelle Smith, was a firefighter acting in the line of duty when she was killed.
The additional time of 26 years came from assault charges related to Taye striking and further injuring the motorcyclist, Edward Reiss, and Taye fleeing after the accident.
At the 30-minute hearing today, Taye, sitting in a wheelchair and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, broke his silence and admitted to his reckless behavior and offered an apology to Smith's family and the entire emergency responder community. "I'm deeply in debt to you. There is no gauge (to measure it)," he said. "Michelle did not deserve this and for that I'm deeply sorry."
Surrounded by cars
Taye, 29, told presententce investigators he was surrounded by cars that night, saw the fire truck and was looking at it as he passed. Then, he said, the car in front of him swerved and he slammed into the parked police car at the scene and blacked out.
According to prosecutors, Taye's car then struck Reiss and Smith, sending her body flying.
Taye also said it was not an excuse — and he knew his comments would not affect his mandatory sentence — but he explained that he was angry about losing the use of his legs and had been in denial about his disability. "I hated being paralyzed. I got so wound up in trying to look normal that I ignored the consequences," he said.
Defense attorney Joe Hurley also noted to the court that because of his disability, Taye's automatic life sentence was going to be more harsh than those imposed on others. He said Taye does not get the needed therapy for his legs, is required to perform minor medical procedures on himself in a non-sterile environment and as a result has suffered infections and had to undergo two surgeries.
Before Taye spoke, Michelle Smith's mother Joanne Newton — who was wearing a button with her daughter's picture on it — told Herlihy that Taye's crimes deserved the death penalty.
"If he hadn't done what he did, if only he cared, we wouldn't be standing here," she said, between tears. Her 29-year-old daughter's death "plays over and over in our heads every day," she said, recalling Smith's daughter standing by her mother's hospital bed saying, "Mommy you can't die. I need you and you need me."
Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg told the judge that Taye "earned" his life sentence through his selfish, reckless actions in a quest for immediate gratification.
He said Taye chose to ignore his own children — who were visiting him that weekend — to go out to a go-go bar with a friend. He chose to drive himself there — using a stick rather than getting the proper equipment for his car or proper training. He chose not to ride with that friend. And then he chose to drive himself home, where he chose to drive at a high rate of speed, chose what lane to drive in and chose to pass the fire truck.
Lugg then asked for Herlihy to impose the maximum penalty for each of the other charges on top of the life sentence.
Herlihy, who presided over the bench trial and found Taye guilty, said he could not describe what happened as "an accident."
And while it may not have been an intentional killing, as Taye's attorney argued, "This was avoidable," he said.
The judge also noted that no one has ever identified the person who picked Taye up after the accident and helped him flee the scene.
Herlihy concluded with several observations "that need to be said," though they were not a factor in his sentence. Since overseeing this trial, Herlihy said he has noticed how few people actually give proper deference to emergency crews on the road. "Too many drivers in this state are too cavalier about paying attention to emergency vehicles," he said. "I just see too much of it."
And despite presiding over thousands of trials, Herlihy said nothing has stuck with him like the vivid, eyewitness testimony about what happened to Smith's body after it was struck.
"I don't look at pictures of firefighters standing at the scene of an accident the same way anymore," he said, adding he thinks that one motorist like Taye "could wipe out three or four of them."
The courtroom was packed with some 40 firefighters today from eight companies. Outside the courtroom, Delaware City Chief Jamie Rosseel said, "I think we all agree justice was served."
Lugg said only that prosecutors were satisfied with the result.
Defense attorney Hurley said, "Everybody lost today."