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A Thursday hearing in a Sonoma County courtroom launched the case of a teen driver who prosecutors allege struck and killed a 2-year-old child and maimed her mother nearly six months ago in a Rohnert Park crosswalk.

The case is expected to highlight in stark outline how a tragic outcome can come from the seemingly harmless and all-too-regular action alleged by prosecutors: texting while driving.

The personal impact is life-altering for the family of the victims and for the accused, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Dunaway, a Sonoma State University freshman facing a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge.

But the public impact could also be significant as it focuses attention on a ballooning area of law, distracted-driving cases, and whether cell-phone use with a fatal outcome should be a felony with more serious punishment.

In Judge Bradford DeMeo's courtroom Thursday, prosecutors charged Dunaway with the misdemeanor for the death of Calli Murray, the daughter of Ling and Jeff Murray. The hearing came a week before finals for Dunaway, who spent the college term attending classes while waiting for word on possible prosecution.

Dunaway, wearing gray slacks and a white sweater and with her hair in a long ponytail, received the file containing the complaint and investigative report from Deputy District Attorney Craig Brooks and passed the stack to her lawyer, Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney Chris Andrian. Her mother, Sandy Dunaway, sat in the audience.

For Jeff Murray, it was his first glimpse of the driver involved in the crash that killed his child, who was a few weeks away from her third birthday. His wife, Ling, continues with a stringent physical therapy regimen to help her recover from her injuries.

"I have to see this through," said Murray, 47. "Ling doesn't want to see (Dunaway) yet."

Judge DeMeo granted Andrian's request for a month to review the complaint and report on the Dec. 1, 2010, crash in Rohnert Park. Dunaway was driving on Snyder Lane when she struck Ling Murray and her child, who were in a crosswalk at Medical Center Drive, according to police.

The judge rescheduled the entry-of-plea process for June 16.

Cell-phone use by drivers is drawing greater scrutiny as crash data begins to reflect how its prevalence has affected driving behavior.

Cell phones were a factor in 18 percent of 2009 fatalities that occurred in distraction-caused crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While preparing the complaint against Dunaway, prosecutors searched for similar vehicular manslaughter cases linked to cell-phone use. District Attorney Jill Ravitch said they found none that led to a conviction in California.

"It's an area of the law that prosecutors' offices are just becoming more and more aware of," Ravitch said.

Outside the courtroom, Dunaway declined to comment.

Her attorney said Dunaway wanted to enter a guilty plea right away, but he told her they must wait to review the investigation.

"I said, &‘Kaitlyn, I can't enter a guilty plea without at least reading the police report,'" Andrian said. "She's an absolute sweetheart. She's as remorseful as she could be."

Prosecutors will have to prove that cell-phone texting, speed or failing to yield to people in a crosswalk caused the crash, and not, for example, negligence on the part of the pedestrians, he said.

If convicted of the misdemeanor offense, Dunaway would face a maximum sentence of a year in county jail. A minimum sentence would involve probation.

Murray sat in the courtroom with his stepfather, Al Andres, 67, who flew from Delaware to attend the hearing. Murray said he was relieved to get the court process started. Both men said they eventually hope to promote more strict legislation to deter people from using their cell phones while driving.

"For me, it has to be put to rest so we can move on," Murray said. "Then we can work on getting the laws fixed."

A vehicular manslaughter charge would typically rise to a felony, which involves state prison time, only if there are other criminal circumstances, such as alcohol or drug intoxication.

Using a cell phone while driving is an infraction under current state law.

Andres pointed to evidence that texting drivers can be just as dangerous, if not more, than drunken ones.

Talking or texting on a phone delays a driver's reactions as much as being legally drunk, said researchers with the University of Utah who performed simulation tests for a study that was published in 2006.

"If you're drunk driving, at least your eyes are out the window and you're looking where you're going," Andres said. "If you're texting, you're not even looking out the window."

Society, and more specifically state lawmakers, will have to decide whether a negligent behavior, such as cell-phone use while driving, is on par with criminal behavior such as drunken driving, said William Robertson, dean of the Empire College School of Law.

"As we start to use tools that weren't anticipated by statute, we find ourselves in uncharted territory," Robertson said.

So far, state lawmakers have focused efforts on limiting cell-phone use and increasing deterrents for drivers, such as fines.

The state Senate in April voted for a bill that would increase the fines for prohibited cell-phone use among drivers: talking without a hands-free device or texting.

On Saturday, Cotati Lyons Club members are hosting a benefit spaghetti dinner for the Murray family.

It's part of ongoing efforts following Calli Murray's death to help the family and raise awareness about distracted driving.

The dinner will be from 4:30 to 8 p.m. at 86 La Plaza, behind the Rancho Cotate Fire Station. The suggested donation is $8.

The Murrays will bring T-shirts with a sketch of Calli Murray as an infant, drawn by her teen brother, on one side and on the other the words: "Distracted driving kills."

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