The grief of three families spilled out of a Spokane courtroom Thursday as 17-year-old Preston Maher pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide in the deaths of his University High School classmates McKenzie Mott and Josie Freier.
For the families of the victims, the sadness that has filled their lives since Oct. 5 last year was mixed with anger and confusion over what they called a lenient sentence for Maher. Friends and family members described the 17-year-old, clad in a white dress shirt and speaking in a soft voice, as an honor student and avid churchgoer who made a terrible mistake and is gripped by depression.
Maher was the driver on a stretch of road formerly known to teen motorists as the “Ponderosa jump.” Police said he was driving as fast as 70 miles per hour when his car left the roadway and struck a tree, killing the girls, both 15.
Spokane Superior Court Judge Michael Price sentenced Maher on Thursday to 60 days of confinement, 300 hours of community service and two years of probation, a sentence below the standard range outlined in state law. Price ruled that confining Maher for four to six months in a juvenile institution would be a “manifest injustice” and agreed with the joint recommendation of prosecutor William Reeves and defense attorney Philip Wetzel for the lighter sentence.
Rick Freier, Josie Freier’s father, said the families objected to the deal when it was brought to them a few weeks ago. A trial initially was scheduled for next month, but the families were told six days later the deal had been approved by the prosecutor’s office, Freier told a packed courtroom – many clad in T-shirts displaying the smiling faces of the victims and Biblical passages. The crowd overflowed into the hall of the Spokane County Courthouse.
Freier said after he was told of the plea deal, he requested a meeting with Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker, who had the final approval. During the meeting, Freier said, Tucker talked extensively about Maher’s spotless background.
“I asked him another question. I asked him, ‘What was my daughter’s name?’ ” Freier, who declined comment after the sentencing, told Price. “He started talking about another subject and I stopped him. I said, ‘What’s my daughter’s name?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Sorry, I don’t know.’ ”
Wetzel said he believed the chances of successfully defending Maher at trial were good after reviewing city engineering records and a crash reconstruction. But “it was Preston that decided to accept this plea deal,” Wetzel said.
Maher’s father, Scott Maher, apologized to the families of the victims and to the community as a whole in a quivering voice interrupted frequently by tears.
“Anyone who thinks that my son is not remorseful has not lived in our home for the past year,” Scott Maher told the media after the sentence was delivered. “He has unbelievable guilt. It haunts him every day.”
Preston Maher read a brief statement to the judge before he was sentenced.
“I hope to become a man of God that (Freier and Mott) would be proud of,” Maher said.
Friends and family members of the victims said the two-month sentence would send the wrong message to other young drivers in the state. A family friend called the terms of the deal “a flat joke.”
Connie Mott, mother of McKenzie Mott, spoke the longest in a hearing that lasted most of the morning. She said the prints of her youngest daughter’s toes still smudge her car windshield, remnants from the pair’s trips to soccer matches. University High School retired Mott’s jersey, No. 9, in a ceremony shortly after the crash. The sophomore was a starter on the team.
But the windshield is damaged, making it hard to see, and Mott said she would replace it even though it will mean losing one more connection to her daughter, because she knows that her actions have consequences. She asked Price to render a sentence for Maher that would cause him to think of his own actions.
“I’ll lose those two prints, that help me be every single day, that help me take that big breath in, that deep breath out,” Mott said. She declined to comment after the sentence was read.
Price called Maher’s actions “beyond stupidity” and said the case was the most difficult of his lengthy career on the bench. But he ruled that Maher met the standards of law necessary to grant him a sentence below the standard range, as attendees who did not get a seat in the packed courtroom craned their necks to hear his words through laptop speakers connected to a live camera feed from KREM.
Price told family members in the audience he understood their anguish, saying he lost somebody close to him and was informed by a nightmarish phone call when he was a teenager.
“She was taken away from me in a moment,” Price said. “How, why, I’ve never figured it out.”
Price said he told the family this “not because I want your sympathy, but because I truly understand what it is to experience profound grief.”
Maher is scheduled to begin serving his sentence next week. A restitution hearing will be held in the coming months, and Price said the outcome of civil proceedings is likely to involve a substantial amount of money.
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