WEST CHESTER - Jessica Copeland's decision to buy alcohol for her teenage friends was like a stone being tossed into a pond, leaving ripples of tragic consequences in its wake, the judge who sentenced her to prison said Tuesday.
Copeland's crime led to the deaths of two young people, serious injuries to two others, and grief for their families and the community mourning these losses, Common Pleas Court Judge Phyllis Streitel said before Copeland was handcuffed and led from the courtroom.
'What you did was really a horrible, criminal lapse in judgment,' Streitel told Copeland, 23, of Honey Brook, after the accused entered guilty pleas to four counts of corruption of minors and one count of furnishing alcohol to minors. 'Because of these horrific ramifications, you need to go to prison and pay for your acts.'
Copeland admitted to investigators in July that she had driven Montgomery 'Monte' Wood, 16, and Britany Pearl Leger, 15, to a state store on July 15 to purchase liquor and hard cider for themselves and two friends, Damien Paterno and Cameron Merlino, both 15.
The four teens later spent the night drinking then climbed into a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution driven by Wood, who was not licensed to drive any car, let alone a high-powered sports car.
According to a state police investigator, about 3 a.m. July 16, Wood lost control of the car while racing on rural Beaver Dam Road near Park Road in Honey Brook Township. The car veered off the road and struck a tree and a utility pole. Wood was pronounced dead at the scene. Leger was later pronounced dead at Brandywine Hospital. Paterno and Merlino suffered serious injuries but survived, although Paterno was in a coma for several days and spent months in Reading Hospital with brain injuries.
Toxicology tests completed afterward revealed alcohol in Wood's system at the time of the crash.
Coincidentally, the crash occurred almost a year to the day and less than five miles from the site of a crash that claimed the lives of four teenagers last weekend at the intersection of routes 322 and 82 in West Brandywine.
As part of a plea agreement made between the prosecution and Copeland's attorney, along with input from the families of the four victims, Copeland was sentenced to serve 11 to 23 months in Chester County Prison, followed by five years' probation.
She must also write letters of apology to the families of the victims and to the 2012 and 2013 graduating classes at Twin Valley High School, where the victims had been students.
She also must pay for the funeral expenses for Wood and Leger and for the medical expenses incurred by the families of Paterno and Merlino in the months after the crash. Paterno's injuries have rendered him partially incapacitated, according to testimony Tuesday.
Also, Streitel ordered Copeland to complete 20 hours of community service at alcohol awareness organizations and to participate in 12 speaking programs concerning teens and alcohol abuse.
Before Streitel formally sentenced her, Copeland, accompanied by defense attorney Daniel Hanifin of West Chester, expressed her remorse.
'I want to apologize to the families and everyone hurt by the accident,' Copeland said, facing the victims' relatives seated in the courtroom. 'If I could go back and change it, I would. I will try to make things right as best I can.'
Assistant District Attorney Kate Connell Wright prosecuted the case and noted that although Copeland was indirectly responsible for the fatal crash, Copeland could be charged only with supplying the alcohol and not with the crash itself.
Charges of corruption of minors and furnishing liquor are both misdemeanors, and because Copeland had no prior criminal record, the guidelines for her sentence call for little, if any, prison time.
But Wright said her office considers this crime worthy of a prison sentence and noted that the full length was equal to an aggravated sentence under the guidelines. Wright said she had discussed the intricacies of the case and the possible sentence with the victims' families and they had understood the limitations of the prosecution.
'It is not a case that calls for a state prison sentence,' Wright said after the sentencing. 'The whole thing is tragic, but the families were all very realistic about the case.'
The victims' relatives gave impassioned statements to Streitel, either by reading comments to her directly or through letters read by Wright.
Kate Leger, Britany Leger's mother, recounted how many important moments of her daughter's life - high school gradation, marriage and motherhood among them - that she will now miss.
'I would not wish the emptiness or desolation of burying a child on anyone,' Kate Leger said. 'What are we, her parents, supposed to do with all the unanswered questions?' she asked while pondering what her daughter's life would have been like had she survived.
Kate Leger called Copeland's decision to buy booze for the teenagers 'a thoughtless choice to be popular' that has had 'mind-numbing consequences.'
In a letter read by Wright, Sondra Paterno, Damien Paterno's mother, said her son's life had been cruelly affected by the injuries he suffered and by the loss of Wood, his closest and best friend who had drawn him out of his shell.
Her son suffers at school because of the lingering impact of the brain damage he incurred, Sondra Paterno said.
'He feels like an outcast,' she said. 'And the one person who could have helped him is no longer here.'
While handing down the sentence, Streitel paid tribute to the victim impact statements, saying, 'I can't say anything else that hasn't already been said.'