Vt. Woman Gets Jail Time for Texting Crash

(NECN: Jack Thurston, Burlington, Vt.) - Traumatic brain injury patient Debbie Drewniak asked her younger sister, Elizabeth Brigante, to speak for her Tuesday, telling a judge in a Burlington, Vt. courtroom how Emma Vieira changed Drewniak's life forever.

"I am not able to do anything without feeling pain associated with whatever it is I try to do," Brigante said, reading from a letter Drewniak wrote.

Drewniak was left comatose after Vieira struck her with her car in August, 2011. Drewniak was outside with her dog at night, near her home in Colchester, Vt., when Vieira hit her on what defense attorneys described as a very dark street. Drewniak's letter told the court how she now struggles to walk and speak, and how she'll never be able to work again. Her letter also outlined a long list of broken bones she suffered, and told the court how she needs several more surgeries. The crash killed Drewniak's dog, as well.

Colchester Police said the then-18-year-old was distracted by text messages on her cell phone when she hit Drewniak. Even though she initially denied the texting allegation, Vieira, now 20, pled guilty in October 2012 to a charge of negligent operation of a motor vehicle with serious bodily injury resulting. Tuesday, Vieira acknowledged she was distracted by her text conversations, but said it was the content of those chats that took her mind of the road, and not button-pushing at the actual moment of the collision.

"I would just like to say I'm really sorry, Deborah," Vieira said in court, addressing Drewniak. "I wish I could take all your pain away and I do wish I could take your spot, and give you your life back. I never meant for any of this to happen."

Vt. Superior Court Judge Michael Kupersmith sentenced Vieira to 30 days in jail followed by five months of home confinement. After that, Vieira will be under a lengthy probation period with many expectations on her, including community service. Kupersmith said he hopes the case is a reminder of the huge responsibility that comes with a driver's license.

"Cars can be dangerous pieces of machinery if they're not under control at all times," the judge warned.

Vieira's defense team and mother had asked Kupersmith for a sentence that did not include time behind bars, arguing it would ruin her chances at keeping a job and apartment. Vieira's mother, Regina Vieira, also told the court her daughter is an excellent role model and caregiver for her other child, a 5-year-old boy. Regina Vieira said she was counting on her daughter to take care of the boy while she recovers from an upcoming surgery. Judge Kupersmith said he found Emma Vieira to be sincere in her apology, but noted that punishment must be severe enough to send a message to the general public that distracted driving will not be tolerated by the Vt. court system.

Drewniak's family seemed glad Vieira's sentence included time behind bars and had a simple message for the community: "If your car is on, turn your cell phone off," Debbie Drewniak said.

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