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.