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Plea deal, tears, close Hernando County DUI death case

BROOKSVILLE — Barbara Jean Diffendal wanted to show remorse as she stood before a judge and the family of the woman she killed in a drunk-driving crash.

But the words never left her lips. As she pondered her actions, she dissolved into uncontrollable sobs.

The 44-year-old Spring Hill woman pleaded guilty Friday to DUI manslaughter and received 13 years in state prison as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.

The sentence capped an emotional hearing that left strangers in the audience weeping and empty tissue boxes scattered on courtroom benches.

The fatal collision occurred just before 6 p.m. Jan. 5, 2008, on U.S. 19 near Forest Oaks Boulevard.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Diffendal was driving a 2003 Ford Mustang south and lost control of her car as she changed lanes. She crossed the median and struck a 1989 Pontiac Firebird driven by Jeanine Costello Bethoney of Spring Hill.

Bethoney, 34, died from her injuries about two hours later at Oak Hill Hospital. She was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash.

Diffendal left the scene on foot with her 4-year-old daughter, who was uninjured. Hernando County sheriff's deputies found them and took them to the hospital for treatment.

Authorities charged Diffendal on Sept. 24 with DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene without rendering aid, after toxicology results showed she had been driving under the influence of alcohol, according to arrest reports.

Two members of Bethoney's family spoke about their loved one at the hearing, prompting tears from observers in the courtroom.

Diffendal faced a maximum of 30 years and a minimum of about 11 years in prison.

Prosecutor Bill Catto said the victim's family agreed to the lower punishment to avoid a trial.

"Justice was done," he said. "I hope this helps … deal with their loss."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Plea deal, tears, close Hernando County DUI death case 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 7:21pm]

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