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A bitter balance of justice in Pasco crash fatality

Special to the Times

Special to the Times

DADE CITY — Cynthia Gray has spent the last year reliving the details of the accident that killed her son.

She came to court Wednesday morning convinced that the teenager who ran him over should bear more blame for his death.

"We believe more strongly than ever that this is a case of wrongful death/manslaughter," she wrote in a long letter to Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa, asking for a new inquiry into the April 2007 crash.

But the Florida Highway Patrol determined that Duke Gray, 37, was drunk and speeding when he lost control of his motorcycle and crashed on a dark curve of Collier Parkway in Land O'Lakes. Ryan Cornett, then 17, drove up moments later and ran over Gray and the Harley-Davidson.

Cornett, the patrol said, was not at fault. Had he not left the scene after hitting Gray, he wouldn't have been charged with any crime.

But he did leave, and the dead man's heartbroken mother wanted him in jail.

• • •

Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa looked around the courtroom and saw what was coming: Gray's emotional family and friends, all eager to make their case for deeper investigation.

His morning docket was crowded. So he took the unusual step of meeting with them in his chambers, where he could answer their questions directly.

Cynthia Gray wanted Cornett's passenger interviewed again to find out if the teens had been drinking that night. She wanted FHP's investigation redone.

"The reports don't add up, don't make sense," she said. "Nobody is listening to this."

"I'm listening," the judge said.

The session became a kind of Florida Law 101. Siracusa queried the prosecutor, asking questions he already knew the answers to.

In short, a new investigation probably wouldn't help the Grays, the judge said. If witnesses were caught lying and changed their stories, the inconsistent testimony would backfire with a jury. If Cornett pleaded guilty Wednesday, but more evidence was found later, he still could not be charged because of the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy.

Siracusa, acknowledging that the family would probably leave unhappy, asked Gray if she had more questions.

She cried. "Obviously it's all moot now."

• • •

She spoke first during formal sentencing, reading from the last birthday card her son sent her, and a verse from the Bible.

"Because of the actions of Ryan Cornett on April 21, 2007, we've all been condemned to not having Duke, and we'll never have that happiness back," she said.

Cornett's family spoke too.

"All I've ever know about Ryan is that he's always been a loving kid," his aunt, Judy Cohen, told the judge. "Ryan has been extremely affected by this. He has never one second taken any of it lightly."

Chip Purcell, Cornett's lawyer, said that after hitting the motorcyclist, Cornett pulled into a nearby parking lot, and his passenger got out and was told by paramedics that they could leave.

Cornett pleaded guilty Wednesday to leaving the scene of a crash involving serious injury, a third-degree felony, and a misdemeanor charge of leaving the scene of a crash involving property damage. He faced up to five years in prison.

The judge said he pondered this case every day for two weeks on his drive to work. He doubted he could construct a sentence that would make both sides happy.

"Every time I tried to work this Rubik's Cube … I haven't been able to do it," Siracusa said.

Finally, he said everything he learned about Gray told him he would have wanted forgiveness for Cornett.

So the teen will not go to prison, Siracusa decided. He'll spend the next five years on probation, performing 50 hours of community service and abiding by a 9 p.m. curfew. He won't drink alcohol, and he'll have to let probation officers search his home and car at any time, for any reason.

But also, this:

Cornett will carry a picture of Duke Gray with him everywhere he goes.

He'll replace his MySpace page, which had contained references to drinking and partying, with a picture of Duke Gray.

And every year of his probation, on the first weekend following the anniversary of the crash, Cornett will report to the Land O'Lakes Detention Center to serve 48 hours in jail.

"I want you to think about it constantly," the judge said.

• • •

Cornett was relieved to be spared from prison, though he worried about losing his valuable Bright Futures scholarship, his lawyer said. An honors student and baseball player at Land O'Lakes High School, he is set to graduate next month.

Cynthia Gray, who had stood up and pleaded for 18 months behind bars for the young driver, left the courthouse satisfied.

She called the sentence "extremely fair," a fitting tribute to her son who loved and respected everyone he met.

She praised the judge's decision.

"In many ways it was like Duke was talking himself," his mother said.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Court hands down a sentence of remembrance for Duke Gray This photo of Duke Gray, who was killed in a crash on Collier Parkway in April 2007, will appear on the MySpace page of Ryan Cornett. It's a condition of Cornett's sentence after the teen pleaded guilty Wednesday to leaving the scene of the crash that killed Gray. Cornett also had to watch a video of Gray's memorial service, where one friend after another described him as a loving friend who looked people in the eye and listened intently. Gray, who worked at an advertising agency and loved scuba diving and motorcycles, was 37 when he died.

A bitter balance of justice in Pasco crash fatality 05/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:15pm]

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