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Justice or mercy? Crash takes a life, ruins another

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joe Bulone looked out from the bench to a courtroom in pain.

On his right sat the still-grieving family of Patrick Cooley, 24, of Tarpon Springs. He died while riding in the car of a friend who drunkenly plowed into a vehicle stopped at a red light on U.S. 19 in Pasco County.

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

One family spoke on behalf of a lost son who had been a certified personal trainer and a student at St. Petersburg College. Relatives sought punishment for Cadmus-Diaz, the man who authorities say was so drunk he didn't even try to brake.

The other family wanted compassion for a man in a wheelchair whose gradual rehabilitation would be threatened in prison, relatives said.

Which would the judge choose: justice or mercy?

* * *

Life for Cadmus-Diaz has come down to this:

"The only thing I like about my life is that I'm living," he said during his sentencing Thurs. "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.

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

At 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. He couldn't even breathe on his own after the accident. Prison could impede the most important progress, which is made in the first two years after an injury, his doctor testified.

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 before an ambulance took him to jail.

"I wanted to hear what the person who killed my son had to say," said Michael Cooley, the general manager of Crown Honda of Pinellas Park.

Then there were the jars around town raising money for Cadmus-Diaz that 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 man wore a seat belt, and Cadmus-Diaz was driving with the lights off. Witnesses said he was so drunk - he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.189 percent, more than twice the threshold at which Florida law presumes a driver to be impaired - 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."

Sentence comes down

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 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, (and) he can communicate with his family and friends.

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

Cadmus-Diaz left the New Port Richey courtroom 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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