Judge should OK DWI victim's prepared remarks

Nicolas and Edita Bonilla react to a judge's Nicolas and Edita Bonilla react to a judge's decision to overturn the 2010 DWI conviction of Erin Marino, who was driving the car that hit their family minivan in June of 2009. (March 9, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Judge George Peck wouldn't permit a victim's advocate to read a statement on Edita Bonilla's behalf during a sentencing hearing in a drunken driving case that's set to resume in Nassau Tuesday.

While Peck had no obligation to allow anyone other than Bonilla to talk about what happened after a Hicksville woman convicted of driving drunk slammed into back of a minivan carrying her family, last week's denial threw up an unexpected roadblock to the victim.

Bonilla had wanted an advocate to read the statement about what had happened to her and her family -- after a car driven by Erin Marino of Hicksville slammed into the back of their vehicle in 2009 -- because Bonilla feared she might become too emotional.

Crime victims often take time in advance to carefully write out statements so they can clearly relay their thoughts and feelings. It is no small thing to publicly relate directly to a judge details of physical and emotional damage, or to recommend punishment for the convicted criminal.

Last week, however, the statement Bonilla prepared -- written in Spanish and translated into English -- never made it into the sentencing hearing for Marino, who was convicted of aggravated vehicular assault, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 to 15 years.

Peck denied a request from Maureen McCormick, chief of the district attorney's vehicular crimes unit, to let Vincent Mesolella, a former Rhode Island state lawmaker, read on Bonilla's behalf. Mesolella's daughter, Desiree, an Adelphi University student, died in a drunk-driver-related crash in 2009.

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Peck also denied McCormick's request that she be allowed to read it. The judge asked Bonilla, 40, of Hempstead, to speak for herself. And she did -- but not from her statement.

Bonilla had composed the document in Spanish but the only copy in court had been translated, for the advocate's sake, into English.

She -- or presumably the judge or the prosecutor -- could have asked the translator to take the English version, and read it back to her in Spanish to verify that it was her statement. Then, the translator could have read it to the judge in English.

Had that happened, the court would have heard this: "For three months after the accident my daughters were afraid to get into any car. We had such a hard time going to physical therapy because they wouldn't get in the car," the document reads.

"They were also very afraid of white cars in particular because Erin Marino's car that hit us was white."

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That's hard stuff.

Instead, Bonilla, left to speak off the cuff, broke down into tears early and often, according to courtroom observers. Each time, Peck allowed her to recover and go on. The result was a victim's statement delivered in fits and in starts.

Peck had allowed Bonilla and her husband to sit in the jury box. Bonilla, from that vantage point, also could look out upon a room filled mostly with Marino's supporters.

At one point, Peck asked who had been helped by Marino -- who has made a turnaround, including 11 months of inpatient treatment for alcohol -- to stand up. Almost two dozen of them did.

"I felt at times that if I had just walked into that courtroom, I might have thought the victim was the defendant and the defendant was the victim," said Marge Lee, another victim's advocate who was in the courtroom.

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Brian Griffin, Marino's defense attorney, disagreed, saying that in his view, the judge had ensured that Marino and Bonilla were heard.

According to Daniel Bagnuola, a spokesman for the courts, "The integrity of the process was preserved and the interest of both sides was protected."

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