ELKTON — A man who killed a Cecil County woman and injured six other people — one critically — in October 2020 when he fell asleep behind the wheel of his tractor-trailer and triggered a chain-reaction crash on Interstate 95 near Perryville received a 364-day jail term on Friday, during a proceeding that the judge and the prosecution both described as hard.
Cecil County Circuit Court Judge William W. Davis Jr. imposed the sentence on the defendant – Jesus Prado-Valdes, a 48-year-old Lehigh Acres, Fla., resident who will serve his 364-day term in the Cecil County Detention Center.
Amy B. Spencer, 56, of Colora, was killed in the domino-effect collision caused by the defendant.
In June, as part of a plea deal, Prado-Valdes pleaded guilty to criminally negligent manslaughter because, according to his lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Derrick Johnson, the defendant wanted to “take responsibility out of respect” for Spencer’s surviving family members to “give them some peace, no matter how little it might be.”
Moreover, Johnson asserted that, had the case gone to trial, the defense could have made a legal argument that Prado-Valdes falling asleep behind the wheel did not rise to the level of criminal negligence. His client, however, wished to bring closure to Spencer’s surviving relatives, Johnson reported.
Prado-Valdes has been receiving counseling to deal with the sorrow and guilt he feels, knowing that his falling asleep behind the wheel resulted in the loss of Spencer’s life, according to Johnson.
AN APPROPRIATE SENTENCE
Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Sentman, Judge Davis and Johnson each expressed how difficult it was to sentence Prado-Valdes because his deadly mistake — falling asleep behind the wheel — wasn’t as flagrantly criminal as contributing factors in other negligent vehicular manslaughter cases.
It was undisputed that Prado-Valdes was sober at the time of the fatal crash; that he possessed a legitimate commercial driver’s license (CDL) and that he was driving under the speed limit. Johnson reported that Prado-Valdes hadn’t even had a traffic ticket before October 2020, let alone a criminal charge, and that he does not drink alcohol, does not use drugs and doesn’t even smoke cigarettes.
A Cuban national with a green card, Prado-Valdes had worked as a tractor-trailer driver for six years to support his family after immigrating to the United States, his lawyer reported.
“This would be easier if he was drunk or had no license and was driving with reckless abandon,” Sentman remarked to the judge, before opining, however, that Prado-Valdes possessed a CDL at the time of the fatal crash and, therefore, he “should be held to a higher standard.”
Sentman reminded the judge that Prado-Valdes was driving a 53-foot-long tractor-trailer with cargo when he dozed off behind the wheel on the dark, rainy morning while traffic on northbound I-95 was at a standstill in front of him because of an earlier unrelated, minor traffic accident. His tractor-trailer plowed into the back of one of the stopped vehicles, triggering a series of collisions.
Had the defendant been driving a car or a pickup truck, such a crash would have resulted only in property damage and possibly minor injuries, Sentman speculated.
“The results, to say the least, were catastrophic,” Sentman said, before calling the tractor-trailer a “very dangerous object” and categorizing Prado-Valdes’ falling asleep behind the wheel of such a mammoth vehicle as a “gross departure of care.”
Sentman continued, “His negligence is what cost Mrs. Spencer her life. Clearly, she was a truly cherished person and this family will forever be changed.”
Several of Spencer’s surviving friends and relatives had submitted victim-impact letters to the judge, describing Spencer as a beloved wife, mother, daughter and sister. They wrote that Spencer had a bubbly personality, a deep-rooted sense of family and strong community awareness.
In addition, based on open-court references to those letters, Spencer was a well-respected and loved registered nurse at Christiana Hospital in Delaware, where she worked for many years. Spencer was heading to that hospital at approximately 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 5, 2020 for her next shift when she was killed in the chain-reaction crash on a long, straight, uphill stretch of highway near mile marker 93.
Sentman recommended a maximum three-year sentence for Prado-Valdes, with two years suspended, and three years of supervised probation with some conditions, including performing community work service. He reported that state sentencing guidelines set a penalty range of probation to two years of active incarceration for Prado-Valdes. State sentencing guidelines are based on a defendant’s criminal record, if any, and other factors.
But the judge opted for a “flat” 364-day sentence, explaining that no underlying issues caused Prado-Valdes to fall asleep behind the wheel, so no issues need to be addressed. “I don’t think you have an alcohol or drug problem,” Davis told the defendant.
The judge also commented from the bench, “This would be a lot easier if he (had been) doing something overtly criminal, if he had been drunk, high or driving 100 mph.”
Johnson asked the judge to give Prado-Valdes probation instead of incarceration. Johnson then asked that, if Davis deemed incarceration appropriate, he make the sentence less than 365 days — to avoid immigration repercussions, such as deportation, for his client. The judge obliged.
While noting negative consequences for his client beyond the courtroom, Johnson told the judge that Prado-Valdes will lose his CDL because of this driving-related criminal conviction. (The prosecution and the defense agreed that Prado-Valdes was forthright and cooperative with police after the crash, which injured him, too.)
The defense lawyer also expressed his and Prado-Valdes’ sympathy for Spencer’s surviving family. “By all accounts, she was a wonderful human being.”
DEFENDANT ADDRESSES JUDGE
Speaking through a Spanish interpreter during his allocution, Prado-Valdes told Spencer’s surviving relatives that he was sorry for causing the crash that killed her.
“Above all else, I apologize to the family. It was never my intention. I’ve been driving a truck for six years,” Prado-Vales said at the outset.
Prado-Valdes then explained that, as a professional truck driver, he was always mindful that he could be injured or killed in a traffic accident. But until Oct. 5, 2020, according to him, he had always driven defensively because he was so aware of perils on the highway.
“Driving is dangerous. I would always imagine that someone else would cause an accident, not me,” Prado-Valdes said.
Then he expressed his sympathy — and his empathy.
Prado-Valdes told the judge that he deeply feels “the loss of such a wonderful person,” having read all the letters submitted to the court by Spencer’s friends and family.
“She was an amazing, wonderful person, as well as an amazing, wonderful professional . . . I have four children, ages seven to 20, and I would be happy if they become half the person that Mrs. Spencer was for their communities and for their families.”
He then commented, “I’ve lost people in my life and it takes years . . . even years don’t remove the pain.”
Prado-Valdes also expressed regret. “I wish I had not been driving a truck. I wish I had been driving a car. I was under the speed limit when it happened. I was simply working,” Prado-Valdes told the judge.
Then his thoughts shifted back to Spencer’s surviving family, as he ended his allocution.
“What’s most important to me is that the family be satisfied with the outcome,” Prado-Valdes commented, referring to his pending sentence, which was imposed moments later.