HAVERHILL - In the first case of its kind in Massachusetts, a teenager was found guilty Wednesday of causing a fatal crash while texting and will serve a year in jail, as the judge attempted to send a clear message to others who may be tempted to take their eyes off the road.
"Deterrence - that really seems to come to play in this case . . . People really want to be safe on the highways,'' said District Court Judge Stephen Abany, explaining the basis of his decision, moments before sentencing Aaron Deveau of Haverhill before a courtroom filled with loved ones of both the victim and defendant.
Abany issued the maximum sentence - 2 years in jail for causing a motor vehicle accident while texting and 2 1/2 years for motor vehicle homicide, to be served concurrently - but suspended all but a year, citing Deveau's youth and lack of a criminal record. Deveau's conviction on the homicide charge also resulted in a 15-year suspension of his driving license.
Deveau, now 18, had just turned 17 on Feb. 20, 2011, when he veered into oncoming traffic on River Street, in an accident that took the life of Donald Bowley Jr., 56, of Danville, N.H.
"I made a mistake,'' Deveau told the judge, before he imposed the sentence. "If I could take it back, I would take it back. I just want to apologize to the family.''
The six-member jury came back at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning after deliberating for only three hours, beginning Tuesday afternoon. The trial, which lasted four days, was the first criminal prosecution of a driver for causing injury while texting behind the wheel.
As the verdict was read, gasps erupted in the courtroom, revealing a spectrum of emotion along the front row, with the family of the defendant on one end and the victim's family on the other. About 50 people were in the small courtroom.
Deveau, wearing a lilac dress shirt, remained stoic as he listened to the verdict.
Immediately after it was read, Bowley's two sons, daughter, and sister hugged each other with muted smiles on their faces while Deveau's parents and other family and friends mostly gasped and bowed their heads.
The emotional outpourings continued in the hallway of the courthouse, with Deveau's supporters gathered around his grandmother, about 30 feet away from where Bowley's family stood. "We hope this sends a message that it's not OK to text and drive,'' said Donna Burleigh, the victim's sister.
Thirty minutes later, the families and reporters returned to the courtroom for sentencing.
Luz Roman, Bowley's girlfriend, was critically injured in the crash and was one of several people, including Burleigh, who gave tearful victim impact statements prior to the sentence. Roman's injuries left her debilitated, with dozens of fractures and internal injuries.
"A broken leg . . . a broken heart,'' she said.
Dawn Bowley, the daughter, spoke of her father's appearance as he lay in the hospital the day he died, 18 days after the crash.
"I lost my marbles a couple of times after my dad died . . . I kept waking up at night thinking I was stuck in the hospital elevators.'' She said her father was swollen, with "things coming out of his head'' and tubes down his throat. "All you could do was hold his hand,'' she said, tears streaming down her face.
After the victim's family spoke, Deveau's mother, her body shaking and voice trembling, pleaded for leniency for her son, who sat about 10 feet away.
And then Aaron Deveau spoke: "I just want to apologize to the family.''
But Ashlee Logan, the assistant prosecutor in the case, told the judge "the defendant on that day played Russian roulette.''
"He made a conscious decision to say 'I'll risk it,' '' she said. "He must now face the punishment for risking it.''
Deveau, who has been free on bail since his arrest in 2011, was taken into custody by court officers and will serve his sentence in the Essex County House of Correction.
Jonathan W. Blodgett, Essex district attorney, said Wednesday that a key part of the prosecution's case was obtaining subpoenas for the phone records and comparing the text times to the time the initial 911 call came in. Prosecutors argued that Deveau was texting his girlfriend two minutes before the crash and that his behavior qualified as negligence.
The verdict comes one day after Deveau fidgeted and gave clipped answers on the witness stand while testifying in his own defense. He insisted he was not texting at the time of the crash and could not remember texting while driving.
A law criminalizing texting while driving took effect on Sept. 30, 2010.
"The Legislature rightfully passed this law because they acknowledged that texting while driving is a very dangerous activity,'' Blodgett said. "Hopefully, people will become more sensitive and not do it. It is a very aggravating and scary behavior, a real problem in society, one that most people see on a daily basis. We're grateful the jury came back with the verdict they did, but there were no winners in this case.''
Blodgett said he goes to high schools and shows students a 20-minute video titled "It Can Wait'' about the dangers of texting while driving, "It shows how quickly life can change,'' he said. "We hope parents will point to this case for their kids.''
A State Police spokesman applauded the verdict, but said it would have been more appropriate for Deveau to serve out the full sentence, rather than just a year.
"We should never forget that his family will see him again, will talk to him, will mark holidays and milestones with him, but the victim's family will always have an empty seat at their table, a hole in their lives, and only memories of the person they loved,'' said spokesman Dave Procopio. "That's what distracted driving does.''