The Kevin Coffay Tragedy Revisited: Not Vengeance…Survival

Kevin Coffay took the wheel with four of his teenaged friends as passengers. All four were drunk, and by the end of the evening only Coffay and another were alive, three young people having perished when Coffay’s intoxicated driving caused the car to go airborn into a bloody crash. He was convicted by a Montgomery County (Maryland) court of involuntary manslaughter in January and sentenced to 20 years, not in small part because he had fled the scene of the accident, running and hiding in the woods as his friends bled and died in the wreck.

Today he is in court arguing, through his lawyers, that his sentence is too long. I didn’t think it was too long when I first wrote about the tragedy in January, but after reading his arguments and those of his defenders, I have come to believe that the sentence may not be long enough.

The young man, it seems clear, just doesn’t get it—he doesn’t understand the enormity of his crime, isn’t willing to be appropriately accountable, and most of all, doesn’t comprehend why we punish wrongdoers in a society. He is not alone, obviously, in his confusion on these matters, which only makes the need to send the right messages with his punishment more pressing. Coffay says that the sentence constitutes vengeance. Among the core societal principles he does not comprehend is that meting out severe punishment for destructive behavior is a matter of societal survival. In cases like this, it confirms the value society and the culture place on life.

“While poor choices were made by ALL involved, nothing was done in malice,” a family friend wrote in one of the many letters sent to the court in support of reducing Coffay’s sentence. No, he didn’t shoot his friends, or kill them intentionally: then he’d be facing life imprisonment. But this is a disguised “it’s not the worst thing” rationalization. What Coffey did do is recklessly risk his friends’ lives and the lives of the countless drivers and passengers he would be sharing the roads with in his stupor, not maliciously but callously, selfishly, and intentionally. Any teenager who hasn’t heard hundreds of warnings, cautionary tales, and lectures about the dangers of drunk driving by the time he is old enough to do it is no threat to anyone, because he is blind and deaf. We are responsible for our choices, and when they are so poor and inexcusable that they kill people, “poor choice” is a euphemism. The correct term is criminally reckless conduct. The poor choices of his passengers—they chose to trust Coffay—are in a different category entirely, and they  paid dearly for their poor choices: they died because of them.

Coffay’s attorney, Michael McAuliffe, prepared a chart for the judge to show that his client’s sentence was noticeably longer than in other drunken-driving fatalities in Montgomery County. Is there a chart comparing Coffay’s sentence with that of other heartless cowards who caused  accidents and then ran away, leaving their injured friends behind to die? No…because that doesn’t happen very often, if at all. Even drunk drivers have more decency that Kevin Coffay demonstrated that night.

Coffay’s own letter is part of his argument for mercy. In fact, it is an eloquent argument for why he deserves none.  He wrote:

“…I do think Judge Adams unfairly punished me to address and try to alter the actions of what she described as a ‘culture of recklessness.’ It is not fair to punish me for something I have nothing to do with. I did not create the culture of teens around me and in no way should be held accountable for it.”

But you do have something to do with it, Kevin; you have everything to do with it. Your conduct was the product of that culture of teen recklessness, and your actions exemplified it. For society not to punish you in the most emphatic way would endorse that culture; making an example of you helps to combat it. You were not helpless in the maw of cultural influences; you are part of other, healthy cultures that make it very clear that driving drunk is wrong, and even the culture of recklessness doesn’t endorse deadly betrayal, which is what you gave to your dying friends. It is not unfair that society use your recklessness to send a message about recklessness generally, because your recklessness was so obvious, so extreme, and so deadly.

See you in 20 years.

If it was up to me, it might be 30.


UPDATE: the Montgomery County panel of judges reduced Coffay’s sentence to just 8 years, meaning that he could be eligible for parole in 2013.

32 thoughts on “The Kevin Coffay Tragedy Revisited: Not Vengeance…Survival

  1. Does he actually have to serve 20n years? I thought I read someplace that he was sentenced to 20 years with all but 5 years suspended. If so he should get down on his knees and kiss the judges ass for the sentence.

  2. Coffay’s “arguments” sound like a couple of the same-old-same-old:

    1. Everybody does it.

    2. The culture’s fault, not mine.

    Yawn, ho-hum…so, what else is new?

  3. This sounds like the way most kids are treated. If punished for behavior they knew was wrong, did anyway, and someone got hurt, they just complain “But I said I’m sorry!”. After that, everyone thinks it’s OK. They really don’t understand that your parents can’t bail you out of an argument with physics. Physics wins…every time.

    I’m tired of seeing community-wide or school-wide services advertised for teenagers who killed themselves (and sometimes others) through DUI, racing, or other reckless behavior. They aren’t heros and they aren’t victims, why are you celebrating them and making them the role models for their peers?

    • I went to high school with a girl who had two accidents that resulted in the death of one girl and the permanent crippling and brain damage of another. While no alchohol was involved in both cases the accidents were the reult of her losing control of her car. She got all the sympathy in both cases. and in the second one where she crippled the other girl that girl basically got ignored by her and her former friends becuase her “condition” made them feel uncomfortable”.

  4. The reduction of Kevin Coffay’s sentence today shows why there is such a problem with underage drinking. My husband and daughter recently had an encounter with an underage drunk driver who blew 2x the legal limit. This driver came across a median and hit 2 cars that were stopped at a stop light at 10:00pm on a week night. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries. When my husband went to court, the offending driver received a suspended sentence. The judge told the defendant that if this had happened in Southern Maryland he would have received 3 years. What is the problem with the judicial system in Montgomery County. Are the victims of drunk driving worth less here than in other parts of the state? Mr Coffay’s comments as reflected in the press show no sign of remorse. He only says he is being punished too harshly. I do not know why the initial hearing and sentencing was done by Judge Adams of Frederick County. Obviously, she values human life and believes in consequences for heinous behavior. Unfortunately, the judges who reviewed this sentence and reduced it did not get the memo that human life is valuable.

  5. Montgomery County you just proved once again that the judicial system here is practically nonexistent. Absolutely disgraceful what happened in that courtroom today. I know all the families of the victims, and was present at both hearings and can honestly say that they were the essence of grace – if I had lost a child because of that reckless young man’s behavior I could only hope that I could exemplify the what they showed in that courtroom- honest and sincere love and decent appreciation for the value of human life, and the love for their precious children. All they have left are memories and today their children’s lives were all devalued. Mr. Coffay I wonder how you will face each day knowing that you did not take responsibility for your actions. I know if I took three lives, I would want to honor the judges’ sentence because then, and only then, could I show that I was remorseful. And after all that has happened, you still did not publically address the families who’s lives you have torn apart. Shame on Montgomery County and shame on you too Kevin. A sad day in so many ways.

  6. The three judge panel yesterday seemed offended by Judge Adams’ mention of the “culture of recklessness” as part of the reason for her stiff sentence of Mr. Coffay. In undoing her sentence, they go a long way to adding to the culture of “everybody does it”. The judges seem satisfied that they reversed the “injustice” of Judge Adams sentence, yet send now a very different and dangerous message. This oldschool thinking has no place in this decade or last. The judges are dinosaurs who cling to an outdated acceptance of drunk driving, and who refuse to lead from the bench on this issue. Suddenly, they make Mr. Coffay the victim, and blame the dead for their own drinking as passengers, as if that caused the crash or justified Mr. Coffay leaving them to die. Instead of the community learning a positive lesson from this tragedy, the Judges signal that the old guard “has your back” if you (wink wink) drink and drive like we did.

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful writing. You put into words many of the thoughts that I have been struggling with since my niece Haeley died last May. Our family, just like the Hoovers and Datts, had not really begun to put back the broken pieces of our lives when, allowed by our own laws, the person who caused our pain, was able again to victimize us with his appeal for mercy. So…he gets mercy, and I wonder…where was mercy for our Haeley as she lay dying in that wreckage? I believe justice was not served in court yesterday, and I worry for my family, community, and nation if we are to continue down this road to lawlessness and disregard for life.
    Haeley’s Aunt Brigid

  8. It sounds like many here believe this young man has no worth to society, nothing to give, and no future to redeem. Has this human being lost so much value to us that we really think 20 or 30 years in a hardcore penal institution is the only answer to this tragedy? Because 20 or 30 years in the kind of place Mr. Coffay has been living is a true horror. If you haven’t visited one of these places, your really cannot know how quickly a person’s realization of the “enormity” of their crime can occur. But if you feel Mr. Coffay needs 20 to 30 years of a life of horror to realize his mistakes and bring some sense of relief, that is your judgement to bear. I don’t know the heart or conscience of this young man. But I know mine.

    • As I was pretty clear in stating, Coffay’s welfare is less the concern of the state than the safety of its citizens at this point. His conduct needs to be condemned in the strongest terms, and future Coffay’s need to be warned of their fate. He is better off than the three kids he killed. His highest use now is as a caution to others, and a validation of the principle that we care about lives lost through arrogance, recklessness and cowardice.

  9. I am very interested to see the science that proves the loss of one person’s life through harsh sentencing saves another. I would and should review it. My experience has been that harsher than necessary sentencing has failed as a reliable deterrent. And before I could ever pass that kind of judgement on a human life, I would want good data supporting me. Science has great value in these matters. Challenging discussion. Thank you…

  10. I believe our justice system already did in this case. And I still believe it’s the best system of justice in the world, although flawed and imperfect. The public outcry for 20-30 years would have been, in my opinion, excessive and cruel. My ethical position is this human life has a higher value than that. I don’t agree Coffay’s “highest use” is as a deterrent or that his life should be sacrificed to validate a principle. (Science proves this doesn’t work. So it would be another wasted life). I am more interested in approaches that change the way our society handles punishment. But it’s a tough conversation and society often resists the sacrifices and costs of rehabilitation over punishment and retribution.

    • Science can’t prove that deterrence doesn’t work. In Europe, the penalties are very severe for any drunk driving, and there is less of it—but it could be cultural as well as deterrence. Letting people in essence get away with murder both encourages recklessness (I believe, but no, I cannot prove it) and devalues life.

      • You’re wrong Jack. Scientific studies absolutely can show whether increased penalties lead to deterrence. I believe some of these have been done, but I don’t know what they say.

        • How? Every such study I’ve seen was polluted by extraneous factors, like demographic changes. There’s no consistency in the data at all. And the studies can’t separate out competing motivations. States with the death penalty have high murder rates and low murder rates. I know what the researchers say the data says, but there are competing studies. I suppose you are right that research CAN, but so far, I haven’t seen that it HAS.

          • Controlled experiments, not field studies. If you show in a lab that increasing a penalty makes a certain behavior less likely, then that’s a prima facie case for deterrence based on penalty.

            You seem to be arguing that you think high penalties may cause deterrence, so we should use them, no matter the cost. You think your position should be proven wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt when it’s your position that needs to be supported.

            • But controlled experiments DO show that. Skinner showed that. I don’t think it’s especially applicable to the real world. Laws and penalties have some deterrent value; not enough. Do you advocate eliminating laws with penalties because the data is vague?

              • I haven’t taken a stand here on penalties as deterrence. I’ve taken exception to statements by so sad and you that don’t seem to be backed up by anything. Whether or not I agree on what the penalty should be in this case and why, slandering science and requiring different standards of evidence from your opponents is going to get me riled up.

  11. First: TGT has it right. For example, an overwhelming consensus among leading criminologist that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question of the death penalty strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effect. (Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Northwestern School of Law. There is empirical data out there, so where is your empirical data? There are always other factors-don’t hide.

    Second: NOBODY committed murder (as a lawyer you should know not use such terms loosely) .

    Third: How does an “ethicist” reconcile making broad conclusory statements of fact while acknowledging no data to support the statement?

    • 1. “an overwhelming consensus among leading criminologist that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question of the death penalty strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effect” is not the same thing as proof. As you know.
      2. Why are you talking about the death penalty? My arguments for the death penalty, which are on the b log, have never centered on its deterrent factor.
      3. NOBODY committed murder (as a lawyer you should know not use such terms loosely) .I have no idea what this refers to.
      4. What “broad conclusory statements are you referring to”? The statement about science not “proving” that penalties are deterrents? I support the factual assertions I make in main posts—if commenters choose to go off on tangents, I will respond as I would in an informal discussion, which this is. I have no obligation, nor is there time, to produce documentation of every assertion. how exactly would I show that something can’t be proven? I haven’t seen what I would call conclusive proof, and as you suggested, the researchers disagree.

      And put scare quotes around ethicist again, my friend, and your comment gets dinged. I present these discussions as a public service, not to be insulted. I make my living as an ethicist, because that’s the topic I study, follow, teach, write and consult on, and have in various ways since law school.

      • 1/2. ACCURACY was trying to give an example of where increased punishment does not have a deterrent effect. That would go directly to your argument that increased punishment implies increased deterrence. I don’t particularly like the example cited as it’s an appeal to authority tied around a case that anyone who has read you should know you will say is not similar.

        3. Your quote: “Letting people in essence get away with murder both encourages recklessness (I believe, but no, I cannot prove it) and devalues life.” That was in response to a comment about the 20 years in this instance being cruel. You said drunk driving that happens to kill someone is the same as intentionally killing someone. Manslaughter is not murder.

        4.Even if the comments are supposed to be informal discussion, it is reckless to make statements like “Science can’t prove that deterrence doesn’t work.” Now, I can’t really tell if ACCURACY was referencing that statement or not. Without references what that implies to, it looks like a loaded question.

        • That last sentence should saying something like “Without any obvious statements that this question applies to, it looks like a loaded question.”

      • I suspect ACCURACY (Oh, how I hate that name) meant: “For example, an overwhelming consensus among leading criminologist that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question of the death penalty strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effect [beyond what is achieved by long prison sentences].”

        • Ah. Then 1) Who didn’t know THAT? 2) Except, presumably, when someone already in life imprisonment considers killing someone 30 Since the discussion is about long prison sentences, I’m not sure what that gets us.

  12. Yes, Kevin was wrong for his actions, but why don’t the parents of these victims take some of the responsibility, too? Did they not teach their children to wear seat belts? Or not get into a car with someone who was obviously drunk? How is it that a high school girl is drinking and riding around in cars with 4 teenage boys at 3:00 AM? No curfew? Did these kids not feel comfortable calling their parents and asking them to pick them up (with no questions asked) if they were ever in a situation like this? You can’t pin it all on Kevin – the victims themselves exercised poor judgment (by riding in a car with someone who was drunk) and by underage drinking. It is very sad that they paid the ultimate price, but it is time to heal, forgive and hope that others to learn by their mistakes.

    • And really, those prostitutes killed by Jack the Ripper—were they nuts wandering around the slums of London at night? And that Connecticut family wiped out in the home invasion—why no dog? Why no security system? And John Walsh…if he had been watching Adam more carefully, his son might be alive today.

      Our carelessness doesn’t give others a pass to kill and maim us. The fact is that if Coffay hadn’t gotten behind the wheel of his car drunk, speeded, and left the scene of the accident, all or some of those dead kids would be alive today. The dead and their parents have already paid more than a fair price for their mistakes. Coffay has not.

      “it is time to heal” is often a euphemism for “let’s allow the responsible parties to get away with it, because we don’t have the courage to give them the punishment they deserve. “Often,” as in “in your comment.”

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