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Stiff sentence in fatal texting-while-driving case may not deter some

HAVERHILL - They have heard it from their teachers. They have heard it from their parents. They have seen the commercials and the billboards. For a while, Haverhill High School even had a smashed-up car out front as a visible warning of the dangers of texting and driving.

After a judge imposed the maximum sentence Wednesday on a local teenager who became the first person in the state convicted of causing a fatal crash while texting, it is still not clear the message is sinking in.

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“There are still people out there who will say, ‘Too bad for that dude, but it won’t happen to me,’ ’’ said Ashley Cochran, 19, as she sipped an ice coffee in a Tedeschi’s parking lot with her friend Chrissy Levesque, 17. “We have a lot of friends who pick up a text while they’re driving, and I say, ‘Don’t do it,’ but they say, ‘I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.’ ’’

Levesque said texting while driving is definitely a problem among young people and said her own sister was the worst kind of offender. “She’ll be smoking a cigarette, taking a sip of her coffee, and texting at the same time.’’

Aaron Deveau - who was 17 in February 2011, when he drifted over the center lane on River Street and slammed head-on into a car driven by Donald Bowley Jr., 56 - was convicted of motor vehicle homicide and negligent operation of a motor vehicle causing serious injury while texting. Bowley died 18 days after the crash. His girlfriend, Luz Roman, was injured.

During the trial, prosecutors used phone records to argue that Deveau was texting just before the accident, an assertion he denied on the witness stand.

In issuing the sentence, a year in prison, District Court Judge Stephen Abany said his primary concern was that it be a deterrent to others.

‘What is he going to do for 15 years?’

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But punishing him as a warning to others did not sit well with Nick Calogerro, 17.

“If you’re just going to make an example out of somebody, that’s just something scummy the government is doing,’’ Calogerro said as he rode his skateboard through town Wednesday afternoon. “He definitely deserves to be punished for what he did, but not as an example to others. Think of the guilt that kid has.’’

Calogerro said he already has all the deterrent he needs. “My mother would kill me if she found out I was texting while driving.’’

Deveau is being punished, but perhaps not enough, some thought. Many of the teenagers interviewed questioned the fact that he only got a year for killing someone. (The judge sentenced him to concurrent sentences of 2 1/2 years for the homicide and 2 years for the texting charge, but suspended all but a year, citing Deveau’s youth and lack of a criminal record.)

The part of the punishment that got the most reaction from the teenagers interviewed was the fact that the homicide conviction comes with a 15-year suspension of Deveau’s driver’s license.

“What is he going to do for 15 years?’’ Amanda McCarriston, a freshman at Haverhill High School, asked with a look of shock on her face as she stood outside the school with sophomore Ryan Landry.

“It was a stupid thing to do,’’ said Landry, who said the problem is that many teenagers suffer from feeling invincible. He said he avoids the temptation by always putting his phone away when he drives.

As Ron and Kim Comtois pulled up outside the school to pick up their daughter, Brianna, a freshman, they said that while Brianna was not yet old enough to drive, they worried about her, and themselves.

“I own a business, and I’ve got lots of clients texting,’’ Ron Comtois said, his phone on his lap, as his wife answered two calls in less than a minute.

“It’s a tough thing to control yourself when something is going on and you want to look down and send a text. Even an adult who’s been driving for 20 years can crash into someone if they take their eyes off the road for a second, never mind a kid who has been driving for two or three months.’’

At the local skate park, some teenagers who know Deveau said the entire thing was a sad situation. The lesson, they said, was clear. But the temptation of instant communication in your hand would always be hard to resist.

Deveau’s sentence “means something; it means you’re not going to get away with it,’’ said Morrison White, 18, who said he knew Deveau in passing.

“He was a good kid. He did good in school. He was nice to everybody,’’ White said. “And he made a mistake.’’

The hope now is that others will learn from that mistake.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
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