Sambath Pal appeals sentence in double-fatal hit-and-run

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Frank Schultz
June 11, 2015

JANESVILLE—A man sentenced to 20 years in prison for fleeing a fatal accident last year is appealing, saying the judge erred in imposing the long prison term.

An attorney for Sambath Pal filed a motion last month in Rock County Court, asking that a new judge resentence Pal.

Pal fled the scene of an April 20, 2014, crash on Highway 14 near Janesville that killed two Janesville motorcyclists, Mitchell J. Vance, 24, and Devin J. Julius, 18.

A hearing on the motion for a new sentencing is set for July 10 in front of the sentencing judge, Richard Werner.

Attorney Philip Brehm filed the motion, which notes that the maximum penalty was 25 years in prison, but the district attorney had called for a 10-year prison sentence with 10 years of extended supervision after release, or half of the sentence Werner imposed.

The presentence report called for an initial term of confinement of 10 to 14 years.

The sentence was “unduly harsh and excessive” and “disproportionate to the offenses committed,” the motion states.

The motion quotes a state Appeals Court precedent that says when a defendant argues his sentence was too harsh, a court can find that the judge erred “only where the sentence is so excessive and unusual and so disproportionate to the offense committed as to shock public sentiment and violate the judgment of reasonable people concerning what is right and proper under the circumstances.”

Werner's sentence meets that standard, the motion claims.

In addition, Werner did not allow Pal to be eligible for in-prison rehabilitation programs that could have allowed him an earlier release time, “meaning the defendant will have to serve most of the term of initial confinement,” the motion states.

Pal was 24 years old at sentencing Oct. 1, was employed, had a military background and “did not have an excessively long criminal history,” the motion states.

“The circumstances leading to the fatal accident were exactly that, a tragic accident. His vehicle crossed the centerline on a curve. There is no evidence that he was impaired by alcohol or other drugs … Had he stayed at the scene, there is probably little he could have done. …

“He expressed remorse for his conduct, not by mere words, but by waiving his right to a trial and pleading (guilty) to the charges,” the motion states.

The motion quotes Werner's explanation of his sentence, in which the judge says “you hit and killed two young people, which is certainly serious and bad enough in and of itself, … and that was a choice you made—clear choice that you made—and to me that aggravates the situation. You didn't have the common decency or compassion to stay at the scene or come back to the scene after you heard about it later that evening.”

The motion says that reasoning was faulty: “The causing of the deaths in this case was not an intentional act. … The flight, on the other hand, is the essence of the offense. It is not an aggravating factor. It is the crime. … In making flight an aggravating factor, the court erroneously exercised its discretion.”

Pal also argues he should have been sentenced on only one charge of hit-and-run involving death, because he fled only one accident. He was charged and sentenced for two counts, one for each of the motorcyclists who died.

The statute does not say whether a person can be charged an additional count for each additional death, but a state Appeals Court ruled in 1988 that multiple counts could be charged for each person harmed in a hit-and-run accident, the motion acknowledges.

Pal's motion also claims that his defense attorney was ineffective for not raising the issue of being charged twice for one crime.

The motion suggests another hearing might be requested to consider whether Pal's legal counsel was effective.

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