In an emotional court hearing Thursday that brought tears even to the prosecutor, a Rohnert Park woman was ordered to serve six months in the Sonoma County jail and placed on formal probation for a 2009 car crash that killed a five-year-old boy.
Brandi Hanley, 32, was sentenced by Judge Ken Gnoss under terms of an agreement in which she pleaded no contest to gross vehicular manslaughter and causing great bodily injury in the death of Addison Branson of Santa Rosa. She was taken immediately to jail.
Before the sentencing, sobbing parents and step-parents of the child spoke to the judge about their decision not to push for state prison and their hopes that Hanley will take the opportunity to seek help for prescription drug addiction.
They played a 15-minute video of the milestones in the red-headed boy's short life that concluded with the sound of screeching tires and photos of his father's mangled car. Hanley was going 50 mph when she rear-ended Albert Branson's stopped Toyota Matrix with her Ford Explorer.
"I'm living a parent's worst nightmare. And it never stops," Branson told the court, his voice cracking. "I feel my heart has been ripped from my chest, thrown to the ground and stomped on."
The boy's mother, Alllison Scott, read a letter to her son, saying "your absence in our house is unbearable."
"I want you back," Scott said. "I want your sweet voice calling me from our backyard."
Prosecutor Craig Brooks had to pause in his own comments to wipe away tears. He expressed concern that Hanley remained in denial about her personal problems and might not succeed on probation.
"The family could have easily said they wanted prison," Brooks said in open court. "They decided it was better to give Ms. Hanley a chance to change herself."
Hanley did not address the court. Her attorney, Joe Rogoway, said Hanley takes "full, complete and unequivocal responsibility" for the crash. He said Hanley already had begun therapy and asked for an alternative to jail, which was denied.
"Our hope . . . is that everybody can move on and the healing can begin," Rogoway said.
The crash occurred April 28 at Guerneville and Marlow roads in west Santa Rosa. The impact forced the smaller car across the intersection where it slammed into a metal utility pole.
The five year-old was sitting in the back seat of the Matrix. Passenger Jennifer Welch, 55, was seriously injured. The boy's father, who was driving, suffered minor injuries.
Hanley said she didn't realize the light was red. She was driving on a suspended license because of seizures suffered after a 2008 assault. Toxicology reports showed she was on a number of drugs, including Vicodin, Oxycodon and Soma, Brooks said.
He said the family agreed to the plea deal in part because Hanley didn't receive a field sobriety test at the crash scene so proving she was under the influence of drugs would have been difficult.
Hanley pleaded no contest to the charges in February. She was sentenced to five years in state prison, but the sentence was suspended in lieu of probation. If she violates probation, she will have to serve out her prison term.
She faced up to a year in county jail.