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Justice or mercy? Crash takes a life, ruins another

Circuit Judge Joe Bulone looked out from the bench Thursday to a courtroom in pain.

On his right sat the family of Patrick Cooley, still grieving his death at age 24. Cooley was sitting in the passenger seat when a friend drunkenly plowed into a vehicle stopped at a red light on U.S. 19.

On his left was that friend, Richard Cadmus-Diaz, and his family. The Jan. 23 accident left him almost paralyzed, dependent upon others for survival - and charged with DUI manslaughter.

One family sought punishment for Cadmus-Diaz, the man who authorities say was so drunk he didn't even try to brake.

The other wanted compassion for a man in a wheelchair whose gradual rehabilitation would be threatened, they say, while locked in prison.

Justice or mercy? Which would the judge choose?

- - -

Life for Cadmus-Diaz has come down to this:

"The only thing I like about my life is that I'm living," he said. "Everything else, there is no life."

He cannot bathe himself. He cannot wash his face or brush his teeth. He cannot dress or feed himself or even shift in bed.

Save for pushing his wheelchair joystick with his hand, there is little his limbs can do.

At age 24, his spinal cord damaged, he is completely dependent upon others - especially the judge. Cadmus-Diaz pleaded no contest, leaving his sentence up to the judge.

But he is getting better. The Holiday man couldn't even breathe on his own after the accident. Prison could impede the most important progress, his doctor testified, which is made in the first two years after injury.

Still, he cannot even have a bowel movement on his own.

"Richie is in his own prison," Elizabeth McCallum said of her son.

- - -

Was Cadmus-Diaz truly remorseful for taking Cooley's life, or only consumed by his own injury? Michael Cooley, Patrick's father, has his doubts.

Cadmus-Diaz has never spoken to him, despite the father's repeated requests. He dictated a letter to the Cooley family - on June 11, the day before an ambulance took him to jail.

"I wanted to hear what the person who killed my son had to say," said the father, a prominent Pinellas Park businessman.

Then there were the jars around town raising money for Cadmus-Diaz, which said he was the victim of a drunken driver. There are past charges of reckless driving and marijuana possession. And there's the accident itself.

Neither wore seat belts, and Cadmus-Diaz was driving with the lights off. Witnesses said he was so drunk - he had a 0.189 blood-alcohol level, more than twice the 0.08 threshold at which Florida law presumes impairment - that before the crash he had been turned away from the strip club Bare Assets, driving off after turning down a cab ride.

"I wish I had a son to take care of," the elder Cooley said, "but I don't."

- - -

Finally, after hours of wrenching testimony, the judge ruled.

Cadmus-Diaz will continue to heal, to rehabilitate, at home.

Then he will be locked up, most likely in a prison hospital. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, starting Jan. 23, 2008 - two years to the day of the crash.

"I've heard arguments that the defendant has been punished enough by his injuries," Bulone said.

"I think he has been punished by his injuries. However, he testified himself, he can breathe, he can eat, he can watch TV, he can talk, he can communicate with his family and friends.

"And that is something the victim in this case will never do."

Cadmus-Diaz left without comment. Michael Cooley left seeing wisdom in that decision.

"Richie gets time to heal," he said, "and justice gets served."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

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