SARATOGA COUNTY Last week’s guilty pleas by Dennis Drue for the carnage he created on the Northway last December brought relief to some people, but for others, there is anger that he will face only 5 to 15 years in prison for killing two teenagers and seriously injuring two more.
Now, a letter-writing and petition campaign has begun in hopes of getting Judge Jerry J. Scarano to give Drue more time in prison. The plea deal was directly between Scarano and Drue, without any input from the Saratoga County District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney James A. Murphy III noted Friday that the maximum Drue would have faced was 8.33 to 25 years in prison. He said if Scarano were to have a change of heart and decide a longer sentence was appropriate, Drue would have the opportunity to take his guilty plea back. The case would then be set back on course for trial. In that event, none of the admissions Drue made during his guilty plea could be used against him.
Some of these points were made after Drue’s guilty plea, but they appear not to have satisfied some friends of the victims. The anger over the 5-to-15-year sentence has manifested itself in letters to the court and to the district attorney’s office and even an online petition started by a friend of those killed or injured in the crash asking Scarano to give Drue a longer prison sentence.
The Change.org petition by Clifton Park resident Melissa Elliott says that 5 to 15 years is too little for killing Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers, both 17, and injuring their Shenendehowa classmate Matt Hardy and Shaker High School student Bailey Wind.
“Christopher and Deanna deserve better and Dennis Drue deserves to live his life behind bars for as long as possible,” reads the Change.org petition. It had 1,500 supporters as of Friday afternoon.
Drue, 23, of Halfmoon, is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 5. He pleaded guilty in Saratoga County Court on Sept. 27 to all 58 counts against him, 52 of them felonies.
Defendants making plea agreements directly with a judge must plead guilty to all of the charges. Plea deals made with the prosecution usually require guilty pleas to the top counts only.
Among the charges Drue pleaded guilty to were top counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter and vehicular assault.
Drue was accused of rear-ending a Ford Explorer driven by Stewart on the Northway in Halfmoon on Dec. 1, causing the vehicle to flip over several times. Stewart was going below the speed limit in the right lane and did nothing to cause the accident, prosecutors have said.
Stewart and Rivers died at the scene, and it took emergency personnel more than two hours to safely remove Wind from the SUV. The scene was horrific and shocking, prosecutors have said.
Prosecutors were prepared to prove that Drue had not only been drinking and was impaired by marijuana but that he was texting and speeding when his vehicle impacted Stewart’s.
Drue had previously maintained that he wasn’t high or drunk at the time of the accident and that he had lost control due to black ice on the road. State police were never able to find any black ice, however.
Murphy has said that he will argue that Drue deserves more time in prison.
But that carries potential complications for both the prosecution and the defense, he conceded Friday.
The main implication, Murphy said, is that if the judge were to change the deal, Drue would have the opportunity to take back his plea, no questions asked.
Regardless, Murphy said his office intends to argue that a greater punishment is needed. His office was ready to go to trial before and would be ready again, he said.
From Murphy’s standpoint, any plea negotiations with Drue ended in late July, before the pretrial hearings in the case.
Murphy’s office had considered offering 5 to 15 years at that point, but then pretrial hearings resulted in family members hearing descriptions of what happened to the victims. Since then, Murphy’s office pressed forward to what was expected to be a lengthy trial, one at which he said he is confident they would have met the burden to convict on all counts.
Albany Law School professor Laurie Shanks, however, called it “somewhat strange” that Murphy would make an offer and then say that wasn’t enough, when his office offered the same sentence earlier.
“The reality is we live in the United States of America and someone should not be punished for taking advantage of his constitutional rights,” Shanks said.
Shanks said she hopes the judge will consider the case itself and not any public outcry.
For his part, Drue’s attorney, Stephen Coffey, refused to discuss any of the outside efforts or what impact they would have on the case and his client if they were to come to fruition.