After an emotional apology that brought a packed courtroom to tears, Meredith Browning was taken into custody to begin serving a prison sentence for a 2009 car wreck that killed her close friend.
Browning, 22, of Lexington, was sentenced in Fayette Circuit Court Friday to three years in prison for reckless homicide for the death of Cierra James, who was a passenger in her car when it wrecked on Old Richmond Road about 2 a.m. May 27, 2009.
Browning was driving about 90 mph when the car crashed as it crested a hill. James, 22, died when she was thrown from the car. Another passenger and friend of the two women, Christina Lauren Fraley, was seriously hurt.
In July, Browning pleaded guilty to reckless homicide, fourth-degree assault and driving under the influence of alcohol while at an age of less than 21. She was 20 at the time of the crash and had a blood alcohol level of 0.02. A level of 0.02 can bring a DUI conviction for someone under 21; Kentucky's legal limit for people 21 and older is 0.08.
Her attorney, Jim Lowry, said he didn't excuse her actions but called the DUI charge a "status" charge. No one has ever alleged that she was intoxicated or that alcohol impaired her driving, he said when given an opportunity to speak by Judge Kimberly Bunnell.
"That would, obviously if she were a year older, not be a DUI," he said.
He attributed the crash to immaturity, comparing it to a time in his youth in which he rode on the roof of a speeding car just for the thrill.
"You can't control maturity," Lowry said. "People make huge mistakes at that age and learn from them."
Browning was driving "way too fast, but this is not all on her," he said.
He told the judge that James bought wine and shared it with Browning and Fraley, and that the only reason Browning was driving was because her car had more gas in it.
"Any of the three of them could be in this position," he said.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Shawna Virgin Kincer told the judge the case was one of the most unique she's ever prosecuted, agreeing with Lowry that the crash was a tragic mistake but that the person responsible had to be held accountable.
"Miss Browning is not a bad person at all," she said.
When Bunnell asked Browning if she had anything to add, the young woman broke into a tearful apology. She apologized to the court, then turned and apologized to the family and friends of James and to her own family and friends, who filled the courtroom to near capacity.
"I am so sorry for what I've done," she said, weeping. "I wish I could take it all back, but I can't. I never can."
Her apology moved many in the audience to tears, even some who appeared to be in court for other hearings.
Bunnell acknowledged the tragedy of the case, but she said she hoped Browning's example could deter at least one young person from making a similar mistake.
She ordered her into custody immediately. The judge did not rule on shock probation, which Lowry said he would seek "at the appropriate time."
James' father, Charles James, said the outcome was about what the family expected. He said they were relieved the case was finally over and that his daughter would agree.
"If she were here, she would say we have labored on this for far too long," he said. "She would be saying 'whatever happens, it is what it is,' and she would tell us to keep enjoying the little things like jumping in rain puddles and looking at the stars."