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Judge snubs victim's kin's plea for mercy

Unconvinced of her reform, he gives the defendant in a drunk driving fatality a five-year prison term.

January 27, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Despite pleas for mercy from the parents of a college student killed by a drunk driver, a judge Friday sentenced the 22-year-old woman behind the wheel to a prison sentence of nearly five years and four months -- a punishment he described as "fairly tough."

Although he described the victim's parents as "impressive, loving and forgiving," Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Joseph Lodge said Jessica Binkerd's drunk driving warranted a stiffer sentence than the probation sought by her victim's family.

Earlier, Lodge had heard impassioned requests from Susan and Alan Barich, the mother and stepfather of Alex Baer, a 25-year-old psychology student who was Binkerd's passenger when Binkerd veered into oncoming traffic on Aug. 6. In December, Binkerd pleaded no contest to charges of drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter.

The Santa Cruz couple told the judge they wanted Binkerd, a recent college graduate aiming for a doctorate in psychology, to mount a campaign against drunk driving.

"I believe that if Jessica is sent to prison, she'll be forgotten, and this whole thing will be forgotten and shut away," said Susan Barich, an economic development official for the city of Marina in Monterey County. "She can go talk to people and say, 'See this wreck? Alex Baer died in there but I was driving.' I think she can save lives."

The judge disagreed, citing researchers who concluded that fear of a stiff jail term is more effective than prevention programs aimed at curbing drunk driving.

Lodge expressed skepticism about Binkerd's efforts at reforming herself in the five months since the accident. That night, Binkerd had a blood alcohol level of more than 0.20, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08. She told investigators she had had four or five drinks at a party she and Baer had attended.

But the judge disputed her account, using standard alcohol absorption formulas to calculate that she must have had at least 15 drinks. He also was disturbed by photographs she posted of herself on MySpace.com after the accident and others that appeared on a Santa Barbara nightlife website.

In one photo, Binkerd was wearing a shirt advertising a brand of tequila. Others showed her at clubs with friends. In one shot, she and others were sitting at a table filled with drinks, but Binkerd told the judge that the glasses weren't theirs and had not been cleared away.

"Why would probation get your attention?" the judge asked.

On the witness stand, Binkerd repeatedly expressed remorse for her "massive errors in judgment." She acknowledged that she had continued drinking -- though not driving or drinking to excess -- until just two weeks ago. But she said she was accompanying friends to bars in an effort to keep them from driving while drunk. She added that she is in Alcoholics Anonymous and is enrolled in an outpatient rehab program.

To Deputy Dist. Atty. Kimberly Smith, nothing Binkerd said indicated that she had earned the right to educate others on drunk driving.

"I agree that forgiveness is part of healing," Smith said, but probation would "minimize her responsibility for what she did." The fact that Binkerd swore off drinking only two weeks before her sentencing is "a strong indication that she doesn't get the gravity of the offense," Smith said.

When Binkerd drove over a double yellow line that August night, she ran head-on into a car driven by Santa Barbara City College student Sara Maynez. Testifying Friday, Maynez, 20, said the crash had left her "an emotional mess." It killed her dog, Corona, destroyed her car and injured her knee.

"Too often, driving drunk is considered an act of daring," especially among young people, Maynez said. She did not recommend a sentence for Binkerd but said probation would send a message of laxness to others.

Binkerd's attorney, Steve Balash of Santa Barbara, argued that his client, who had no prior offenses, should be sent to county jail rather than state prison.

The Probation Department had recommended a jail term of nine months.

After Lodge handed down his sentence, Binkerd's mother, Melanie Lorenzen, burst into tears. Susan Barich leaned over and hugged her. The two women have corresponded about the case and their children.

Outside the courtroom, Alan Barich said he was disappointed.

"What kind of legacy is this for Alex?" he asked.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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