ELKTON — A woman who was under the influence of marijuana and a prescription sedative when she caused a Rising Sun-area crash that killed two people in November 2018 received an 18-month jail term on Wednesday.
Visiting Retired Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth levied a total of eight years in sentences on the defendant, Jennifer Erin Graf, 24, of Elkton, but suspended six and a half years of them.
Specifically, the judge imposed a five-year sentence on Graf for vehicular homicide while under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance (drugs) and then suspended all but 18 months of the penalty.
About the crash
That conviction and sentence relate to one of the people killed in the crash, Bettie Murray, 66, of Rising Sun.
A retired Cecil County Public Schools speech language pathologist, one who taught thousands of children during her 38-year career, Murray was pronounced dead at Union Hospital in Elkton shortly after the collision.
Graf was driving a blue Nissan Sentra in the eastbound lane of Joseph Biggs Highway (Route 274) at approximately 3:15 p.m. on Nov. 14, 2018, when she maneuvered into the opposing lane to pass a pickup truck, prosecutors said.
Seconds later, prosecutors added, Graf’s eastward car crashed head-on into a white 2016 Chevrolet Equinox driven by Murray in the westbound lane.
Silkworth also imposed a consecutive three-year sentence on Graf for criminally negligent vehicular manslaughter and then suspended it during Wednesday’s proceeding in Cecil County Circuit Court.
That conviction and sentence relate to the other person killed in the collision, Austin Matheson, a 17-year-old Chesapeake City resident who was one of Graf’s two passengers. Matheson was Graf’s best friend, according to information released by the defense on Wednesday.
An ambulance crew drove Matheson from the crash scene to Christiana Hospital in Delaware, where he died from his injuries on Nov. 16, 2018, two days later.
Another ambulance crew transported Graf’s other passenger, Robert Hale, 27, of Rising Sun, to Christiana Hospital, where he was treated for his injuries and was later discharged.
A Maryland State Police helicopter crew flew Graf from the scene to University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Unit in Baltimore, where she reportedly remained for several weeks.
“Every bone in her face was broken and she lost sight in her right eye,” her defense lawyer, C. Thomas Brown, told the judge Wednesday while standing beside Graf, who was wearing a black eye patch.
Graf in gender transition
Taken into custody inside the courtroom directly after Wednesday’s sentencing, Graf will serve her 18-month term in the Cecil County Detention Center, where she will be eligible for the work release program. (Graf had been free on a $10,000 bond.)
Brown reported that Graf is a Bohemia Manor High School graduate who was in the culinary arts program at the Cecil County School of Technology and that she currently is employed at a local Burger King.
The defense lawyer also informed the judge that Graf “is undergoing a gender change” and that arrangements would have to be made for “the medical treatment that she needs for this current transition that she is doing.”
Silkworth later told Graf from the bench that, when necessary, the freedom needed to get the medical care that she needs could be part of her work release program privileges while serving her time.
Silkworth ordered Graf to serve five years of supervised probation after completing her 18-month jail term.
As part of that probation, Graf, who told authorities that she started smoking marijuana on an almost daily basis when she was 13, must undergo substance abuse treatment and counseling and abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs. She also must submit to mental health counseling.
After the double-fatal crash, a test performed on blood that had been drawn from Graf at the trauma hospital showed the presence of marijuana and alprazolam, a prescription sedative, prosecutors said.
The test results also indicated that the marijuana had entered Graf’s body shortly before the deadly collision occurred and that it was active in her blood, prosecutors added.
Along those lines, MSP investigators detected a “strong odor of burnt marijuana” coming from Graf’s car moments after the crash, as did a nearby resident — a retired police officer — and an active North East Police Department officer who came to the scene in the 2600 block of Route 274, east of Kirks Mill Lane, to assist.
Moreover, MSP investigators confiscated slightly more than 2 grams of marijuana found inside Graf’s car, including a burnt marijuana cigarette, according to prosecutors.
One second before the collision, Graf was traveling 75 mph — some 20 mph over the posted speed limit — in the opposing lane, according to MSP accident reconstruction results referenced by prosecutors.
At the time of the head-on crash, after Graf had applied her brakes, her car was traveling 60 mph while Murray’s SUV was traveling 52 mph, prosecutors reported.
Graf also must perform 500 hours of community service, as part of the supervised probation ordered Wednesday by the judge. Silkworth specified that Graf must serve those hours in “a speaking program” in which she will share her story publicly to prevent youngsters and teens from using drugs and to educate them about the perils of impaired driving.
The judge explained that some of the probation conditions, particularly the community service, are designed to give Graf the opportunity to give back to the community, to make a contribution to society.
‘You’re lucky to be alive’
“You may not feel like you are lucky, standing here today, but you are. You’re lucky to be alive,” the judge told Graf while encouraging her to live her life in a positive way.
In addition, Silkworth ordered Graf to carry visual reminders of the two lives lost because she chose to drive while impaired by drugs.
“You are to carry with you a picture of each of the victims, wallet-sized (photos), so you can see them every day,” the judge told Graf, before warning, “Come to court without them, and I will consider that a violation of probation.”
The sentence imposed by Silkworth met a recommendation made by David Philbrook Daggett, a traffic safety resource prosecutor with the Maryland State’s Attorneys Association. Graf had pleaded guilty to those two charges in December, as part of plea agreement reached by Daggett and Brown.
State sentencing guidelines, which are based on a defendant’s criminal record and other factors, set a penalty range of probation to four years of active incarceration for Graf, according to Daggett. Graf has an otherwise clean criminal and traffic record, Brown reported.
To avoid a local conflict of interest, Daggett and Silkworth — both of whom are from outside Cecil County — were specially assigned to this criminal case. That’s because Cecil County Circuit Court Judge Jane Cairns Murray, one of the four sitting circuit court judges here, is related to one of the victims, Bettie Murray, through marriage.
‘I regret it every day’
Graf declined her right to address the judge before sentencing, but she did submit a written statement, which Brown read aloud from the defense table.
Graf acknowledged that she caused “a lot of people a lot of pain.” She also expressed a desire that the surviving family members and friends of Murray and Matheson would be able to forgive her someday.
“I lost my best friend (Matheson) . . . I regret it every day . . .,” Graf wrote in her statement, which concluded with, “I am here to accept punishment and whatever the court is prepared to do.”
Graf’s mother, father and sister were seated in the front pew behind her during the hearing, according to Brown, who told the judge that they elected not to address the court.
Love and forgiveness
Bettie Murray lived a life marked by love and forgiveness, that much was clear after her husband for 36 years, Robert Murray, and her best friend, Kelly Keeton, read their victim-impact statements to the judge at sentencing.
Surviving relatives of Matheson also were present in the courtroom Wednesday, including his mother, April Matheson, but they elected not to address the judge verbally in the courtroom. Instead, a victim-impact letter was submitted to the judge; however, the information it contained was not shared during the proceeding.
Before reading his prepared statement, Robert Murray told the judge, “I have forgiven her (Graf), because I know my wife would do it.”
At the outset, Murray qualified that he was speaking on behalf of himself and his two adult sons, Matthew and Michael, the children of his marriage to Bettie Murray.
“On Nov. 14, 2018, I woke up early, turned and kissed my wife good morning. I could never imagine that it would be the last time I would awake with my wife of 36 years next to me,” Murray began.
Murray emphasized that he and his sons now battle an emptiness, a “devastating void” that permeates “every aspect of our lives, every single day.” It is their “new normal,” because the old one had been “stolen” from them, according to Murray.
“We are crushed by the loss of a woman who was everything to us. My life, our sons’ lives, my family’s, Bettie’s family’s (and) our friends’ lives have all been turned upside down and we are now faced with the task of having to figure out how to move forward into a future that doesn’t include the person that was the center of it all for us,” Murray told the judge.
Murray said his wife gave every person she met her “undivided attention” and was “truly, genuinely interested in learning about each person with whom she came in contact.” It was “good fortune” for anyone, friend or stranger, to be “touched by Bettie’s smile, her goodness and her natural witness of God’s love,” he added.
“As a Christian I know that Bettie is in Heaven and that she has forgiven Ms. Graf and wants us to do the same,” Murray told the judge.
Murray qualified, however, that he believes Graf still should “pay for her recklessness” and then asked the judge impose the full sentence and probationary period.
Toward the end of his statement, Murray said, “At the very least, I pray that Ms. Graf understands the magnitude of her careless actions, that she is remorseful, and that she has asked God to forgive her.”
“Bettie was the love of my life. I know in my heart that I will see her again someday in Heaven, but in the meantime, the emptiness and void in heart will remain,” he concluded.
Keeton told the judge that she gave the eulogy at Bettie Murray’s funeral service, which was attended by more than 1,000 people.
“I shared what I still believe — that her legacy is the Christ-like love she gave so unconditionally. This accident has scarred our hearts forever and our lives won’t be the same, but I won’t allow it to define her life,” Keeton said.
Bettie Murray had a positive impact on “countless lives” because she “loved God and it showed,” according to Keeton.
“She was an example of the Christian faith through her displays of love, grace and mercy and she let those things flow freely, without judgment, without condemnation . . . Bettie was the peacemaker. Bettie believed strongly in responsibility and being held accountable for our actions, but she was also the constant proponent of forgiveness,” Keeton outlined.
Toward the end of her statement, Keeton addressed Graf, saying, “With each new day, we are all given a new opportunity to be better, to choose a better path. Ms. Graf, you have been given another chance, and it is my most fervent prayer that you take advantage of this grace and mercy that has been shown to you and use it for good.”
Keeton concluded with this plea to Graf: “For the sake of my sweet friend, please do not let this be in vain.”
Seated beside Brown at the defense table, Graf looked straight ahead, her head slightly lowered, as the victim-impact statements were read.
After hearing those statements, Brown commented, “We appreciate the timbre and forgiveness shown.” He also opined, “People are not always (as) kind and forgiving.”
Moments later, from the bench, Silkworth remarked, “I never met Bettie, but she was a wonderful person.”
The judge told Graf that she is “fortunate” because Bettie Murray was “so compassionate” and because her surviving husband and her best friend are the same way.
“Please, do not let all of this be in vain,” the judge urged Graf, before commenting, “You live the rest of your life as Bettie would have you do it and your best friend (Matheson) would have you do it.”