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Drunken driver in wedding party crash gets 25 years

TAMPA — It's been over three years since her wedding, and Cathy Manzano Jones still can't bring herself to choose photos for an album.

Her mother would have been in nearly every shot, had she been there. Instead, a drunken driver killed 62-year-old Emily Manzano and four other members of the bride's family the day before the ceremony.

"They say forgiveness is part of the healing process," Manzano Jones told Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Foster Friday as he prepared to sentence the man responsible for the five deaths. "Right now, I do not have it in me to forgive him for what he did. Maybe one day I will."

Kenneth Delmar Stewart stood within arm's reach as one by one, relatives of those who died talked about the void he created in their close-knit Filipino-American family.

"I'm sorry for the grief and pain that I've caused you all," Stewart told them.

Last month, the 38-year-old Lakeland man pleaded guilty to five counts of DUI manslaughter in exchange for a 25-year sentenced and 10 years of probation. He faced up to 85 years.

Foster also revoked Stewart's Florida driver's license for life and ordered that he not drink while on probation. He will get credit for the nearly three years he's already served.

Prosecutors said that about 3 a.m. on April 21, 2006 Stewart ran a red light in Brandon and crashed into a Mercedes-Benz carrying the bride's relatives.

Investigators at the scene said they smelled alcohol on Stewart's breath. His blood-alcohol level at the time was 0.12. Under state law, a person is presumed to be too impaired to drive at 0.08.

At her father's urging, Manzano Jones carried on with the wedding the next day.

Stewart told the family he had wanted to apologize sooner, but his attorney advised him against it. He said he understood their pain because just weeks after the crash, his 4-year-old son drowned in a pool while in the care of a family member.

Carelessness caused his child's death, he said, but he stopped short of talking specifically about his decision to get behind the wheel the night of the wreck.

"What I'm asking today is if you can find it in your heart to forgive me and move on with your life," said Stewart, speaking to more than a dozen members of the Manzano family who came from across the country to attend the sentencing.

None of Stewart's relatives spoke on his behalf.

Assistant State Attorney Felix Vega called the tragedy one of the "most extreme" cases of DUI manslaughter. Vega displayed giant photographs of the victims on placards in court.

"Because of Mr. Stewart, those people are no longer here," Vega said.

The judge made Stewart stand face to face with each photo before sentencing him.

Though she and other relatives agreed to the plea deal, Alenor Stangle, whose mother, 58-year-old Sonia Medders, died in the wreck, called Stewart's punishment insufficient.

"Twenty-five years out of Stewart's life compared to the life he has taken away from my mother is nothing," Stangle said.

Like Manzano Jones, she too has yet to forgive Stewart.

Of all those who spoke in court, only Lydia Deguzman said she had found a small measure of peace, tinged with bitterness, in the aftermath the family's devastating loss.

"I have forgiven you for stealing the very last breath that each one of my family members drew," said Deguzman, Manzano Jones' godsister. "But know this: Forgiving does not mean forgotten."

For the bride, Stewart's sentencing seemed to bring no consolation. She spoke at length of the inner turmoil the killer's actions imposed upon her life.

Addressing the judge, she recounted the hours before the fatal collision, when her family had gathered at her Port Tampa home. She recalled being mad at her mother that night over last-minute changes for the wedding.

The two didn't speak before Manzano left with a carload of relatives and headed to her home in Brandon.

"Had I known that was the last time I would ever see her again, I would have given her a hug and a kiss goodbye," Manzano Jones said through tears.

She knows it's not her fault. But Manzano Jones said sometimes she thinks if she hadn't planned to have her wedding that weekend, her family would still be alive.

"I can't help but ask myself," she said, "what if those few minutes I would have taken to say goodbye that night could have prevented everything from going wrong."

Drunken driver in wedding party crash gets 25 years 07/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:50pm]
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