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Published: Saturday, 10/2/2010

Driver sentenced to community service for fatal bus accident

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

"I have a vision of my daughter lying on the street seared in my memory. This image plays over and over throughout the day," said Areti Tsavoussis, executive director of the Toledo/Lucas County Victim Witness Assistance Program, reading Mrs. Duris' statement.

"How I've wished I would have run outside in time to stop her from crossing the street or in time to take the hit myself."

As the emotional words were read to a crowded courtroom, the woman who drove the vehicle that struck 15-year-old Morgan Duris, throwing her 120 feet, closed her eyes in an apparent attempt to fight back tears.

Cynthia Anderson, 67, of Toledo was sentenced Friday to three years' community control, including 200 hours of community service, for causing the Jan. 21 death of the Sylvania teenager. As part of her community service, Anderson will be responsible for participating in programs to promote traffic safety, including the seriousness of adhering to school bus lights.

Judge Frederick McDonald also suspended Anderson's license for 10 years and warned that if she violated conditions of her probation, she would serve four years in prison.

Anderson pleaded no contest Sept. 24 to aggravated vehicular homicide as part of a negotiated plea that involved a sentence of no prison time.

Although firm in her belief that Anderson was "reckless in her actions," Mrs. Duris' statement noted that she and her husband, Tony, were in agreement with the negotiated sentence.

"Tony and I were in agreement with the prosecution to accept the plea of 'no contest' to the reckless vehicular homicide charge against Cynthia Anderson in return for a sentence involving no time in jail," the statement said. "Tony and I felt it was important that Cynthia Anderson be convicted of the felony charge. We also felt it was important to spare the kids from having to testify at a jury trial. These kids have been traumatized enough."

In accordance with the wishes of the Duris family, Judge McDonald ordered that no photographs be taken of the family in the courtroom.

Standing beside her attorney, Anderson apologized to Morgan's family and several of her friends who appeared in court.

"I would like to say to the Duris family and all her friends how deeply sorry I am," she said.

Anderson, who was on her way to work as a caregiver to an elderly Alzheimer's patient, struck the Northview High School freshman shortly after 7 a.m. The teenager was crossing Erie Street near Apple Meadow Drive in front of her house to board the bus.

Anderson was driving west on Erie, approaching the eastbound school bus, which was slowing down. Because her vehicle's dashboard lights were not working, Anderson could not know how fast she was going, authorities said.

Officials later determined she was driving as fast as 50 mph in the 35-mph zone.

Assistant County Prosecutor J. Christopher Anderson said recent public comments made after Anderson's plea indicated that there was a misconception that she sped up to beat the bus.

He said that although she did not stop as she should have, there is no evidence that she accelerated in an attempt to outrun the school bus.

Mr. Anderson added that the prosecutor's office believes that the negotiated sentence is appropriate because of Anderson's lack of a criminal record and that her actions, although reckless, were not intentional.

He added that the Sylvania police detectives who investigated the incident agreed with the sentence.

Although Anderson won't spend time behind bars, Mr. Anderson noted that she now has a felony record and cautioned that the office will prosecute drivers who disregard school bus safety laws.

"If you don't stop for a school bus, you will get convicted of a felony; this is not a misdemeanor," Mr. Anderson said after the hearing.

"[Anderson] is a convicted felon now," he added. "If you don't have her particular set of circumstances, you can get up to five years of prison" for this crime.

Mr. Anderson said that aggravated vehicular homicides are "some of the toughest" to determine what is the appropriate penalty. He said that Ohio law states that judges have the discretion not to impose prison time unless the driver is drunk or driving under a suspended license.

Neither exception was applicable in this case, he said.

Prior to ordering the sentence, Judge McDonald made a lengthy statement acknowledging the devastating impact the incident had on the victim's family and the defendant.

He said he had received letters from people sharing how exceptional the teenager was, commenting on her talent in art and music and how she affected the lives of those who loved her.

The judge said several factors resulted in his imposition of a community control sanction, including the approval of the police, the prosecutor's office, and the Duris family.

"In spite of the horrific impact on the victim's family, they have consented to the recommended sentence and I have given substantial weight to their feelings," he said.

He added that by imposing the recommended sentence, Anderson would not be able to appeal.

"This brings finality and closure to this case and avoids the necessity of Morgan's classmates having to live through a trial," the judge said.

He spoke of the character of the defendant and the nature of the offense, noting that in the minutes following the incident, Anderson was "hysterical" and "frantic." He said that he watched hours of recordings of Anderson while in the police car and at the station for pretrial motions and that he believed her to be genuinely remorseful.

"The defendant will be a prisoner to her feelings of guilt and remorse for the rest of her life," Judge McDonald said.

He said that while Anderson's conduct did not constitute an intentional killing, the judge said it was still a crime.

"Morgan's death under Ohio law is not an accident, it was a crime," he said.

As part of the negotiated plea, the prosecutor's office indicated that it would not object to Anderson asking for limited driving privileges for transportation to work. Her defense attorney, Sheldon Wittenberg, noted this after Judge McDonald suspended Anderson's license.

Judge McDonald declined to entertain the request, saying no motion had been filed.

Brad Rieger, superintendent of Sylvania City Schools, said in a telephone interview that although Anderson's sentence includes outreach about traffic safety, he would have to consider all the implications of having her speak within the district.

He said that if it was presented to him, he would take great care to consider the emotional impact to the Duris family as well as to Sylvania students and parents.

But regardless of whether Anderson appears before district students and teachers, Mr. Rieger said he hopes that the tragedy will emphasize to the community the importance of yielding to school buses.

"Morgan's loss is a tragedy that continues to be felt," he said. "One proactive way of dealing with Morgan's death is raising the community's awareness about bus safety."

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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