LACONIA — On Wednesday Richard Conrod is scheduled to stand before a judge in Belknap Superior Court and plead guilty to being intoxicated while driving on Route 11 in Gilford last August, when his pickup truck crashed head-on into a car, killing one occupant and seriously injuring two others, including the driver.
He is hoping the judge will accept the sentence spelled out in his plea deal — six to 12 years in prison on the negligent homicide charge, with the possibility of spending just four years behind bars if he completes needed treatment or counseling. Conrod will also be pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree assault with a proposed suspended 3½- to seven-year sentence on each count.
Conrod is charged with the more severe level of negligent homicide — one where a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and whose impairment is a direct cause of a death. Like other Class A felonies it carries a potential prison sentence of 7½ to 15 years.
A review of negligent homicide cases in Laconia and Gilford in the last 15 years shows the sentence the Belknap County Attorney’s Office and Conrod’s attorney have negotiated for Conrod is comparable to the sentences handed down in those earlier cases.
Of the prior cases reviewed for this article, no defendant received the maximum 7½- to 15-year sentence, and none escaped serving time, although there have been instances further back in time when that did happen.
In what is probably the most notable recent case, Amy Lafond was sentenced to a total prison term of 7-to-15 years with the possibility of six months being shaved off the minimum sentence on condition of counseling and treatment. Lafond was charged and later pleaded guilty to being under the influence of drugs in April in 2013, when her car veered off Messer Street in Laconia and onto a sidewalk, killing Lilyanna Johnson and seriously injuring Allyssa Miner as the two girls walked home from Laconia Middle School.
Lafond’s was the longest sentence handed down. At the other end of the spectrum, 38-year-old Brett Covey received two to four years. Covey was driving erratically on the Laconia Bypass during Motorcycle Week 2016 when his car collided head-on with a motorcycle being driven by Paul Sambatoro, 54.
However, because there was no evidence that Covey was impaired by alcohol or drugs, he was charged under the lower category of negligent homicide — a Class B felony — which carries a potential prison term of 3½ to seven years — half of what impaired drivers would face.
In other local cases where the drivers were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, Natalie Guzman was sentenced to a minimum of four years in prison for causing a head-on collision with a vehicle driven by Michael Moussette, an 18-year-old Laconia High School student who died. Moussette's two teenage passengers were seriously injured in tha 2003 crash.
And, Ryan Mears received a five- to 10-year sentence for causing a single-car accident on Parade Road in 2014 which resulted in the death of Tiffany Nieves, 28, of Laconia, one of his passengers, and seriously injured a second passenger.
There have also been two local cases of negligent homicide involving boating crashes.
Erica Blizzard was sentenced to one year — six months in the House of Correction and six months under electronic monitoring — for failing to keep a proper lookout when the boat she was piloting at night struck a ledge on Diamond Island in Lake Winnipesaukee in 2008,
In 2003 Daniel Littlefield was sentenced to 2½ to seven years for failing to keep a proper lookout when the boat he was operating, also at night, rode up and over a smaller boat in Meredith Bay, killing John Hartman. Littlefield was paroled after completing his minimum sentence.
Both stood trial for causing a death while impaired by alcohol. However, at Littlefield’s trial the jury acquitted on that more serious charge, and in Blizzard’s trial the jury was deadlocked on the issue of intoxication.
How severe a sentence for negligent homicide should be is a balancing act, law enforcement officials say.
“If you look at it one way, there is no prison sentence that is good enough,” explained Gilford Police Detective Sgt. Chris Jacques, who headed the investigation into the Conrod crash. “Nothing will bring (the victim) back.”
Laconia Police Capt. Alan Graton, who investigated the Lafond crash, acknowledged he would have like to have seen Lafond get more time. “It was a pretty horrific case,” he said.
But Graton, who is also the assistant commander of the Belknap Regional Accident Investigation Team, pointed out that there are numerous factors that are taken into consideration by prosecutors in determining how harsh a sentence to recommend, and by judges in deciding what sentence to impose. One factor Graton cited is what kind of criminal record the defendant has.
Jacques said that, to his knowledge, Conrod has no prior record.
Graton said negligent homicide sentences have been pretty consistent over the years.
But judges consider mitigating factors before handing down a sentence.
For example, 40 years ago then-Belknap County Attorney Philip McLaughlin urged a judge to sentence 22-year-old Sharon R. Noble of Gilford to serve one year in House of Correction after she pleaded guilty to being intoxicated when her car crashed into a vehicle driven by Kathy Waldron, killing her. While Judge William Batchelder sentenced Noble to one year, he suspended six months of the sentence and deferred the remaining six month for one year. The result: Noble spent no time in confinement. The judge told McLaughlin that Noble did not deserve the sentence he was arguing for, because she had no prior criminal record – in addition to the fact she had a 3-year-old daughter.
Mark Sisti, a defense attorney who has defended dozens of clients charged with negligent homicide, including Lafond and Guzman, recalled one of his clients who also got no prison time.
“My client and a lifelong friend went out drinking one night,” he said. They flipped a coin to see which one would drive home. “My client ‘won’ the toss, so he drove. Tragically there was an accident, and my client’s friend died. Their mothers had been extremely close for years,” he continued, “and at the (sentencing) hearing, the victim’s mother got up and pleaded with the judge not to send my client to prison. And he didn’t.”
The sentences for negligent homicide “are all over the place,” Sisti said.
“Every case is so unique,” he said. “There is no real model (for what sentence to give). The sentence depends on a whole scenario.”
In determining what sentence to impose, a judge not only takes into account the seriousness of the offense and any aggravating factors concerning the commission of the offense, but also any mitigating factors relevant to the offense, or to the personal circumstances of the offender.
In most cases of negligent homicide, there is the loss of life and the suffering of the victim’s family and loved ones on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the anguish a defendant feels knowing they have caused the death of someone else.
Judge Harold Perkins acknowledged those two realities when sentencing Natalie Guzman 15 years ago.
“This is a horrendous tragedy for all,” he said, addressing Guzman, who lost her leg as a result of the crash. “But it’s you who made the mistake. And it’s therefore you who has to pay the price of incarceration.” adding: “Good people sometimes do terrible things.”
Another element of negligent homicide sentences is restitution. And based on prior cases the restitution imposed is often considerable.
Guzman was ordered to pay $4,792 — the cost of Moussette’s funeral. Lafond was ordered to make restitution of more than $265,000, while Covey’s restitution amounted to $14,167, and Mears’ to more than $35,000, to cover his victims’ funeral and medical expenses.
“It’s on the low end,” Jacques said of Conrod’s proposed sentence. He said one mitigating factor could be that Conrod decided to offer to plead guilty shortly after he was indicted, about four months after the crash, rather than dragging the case out. Jacques added he has “mixed feelings” about the two years being suspended on condition that Conrod complete counseling and treatment.
“But,” he said, “it’s not that out of line.”