More than a year after his death, Lucio Stanton’s smile is still the first thing his family remembers about him.
“He was always smiling, he could even get you to smile if you were feeling bad,” his sister Amalia Renteria recalled Tuesday.
That smile was still with them at the sentencing Tuesday of Wendy Cooper, convicted of vehicular homicide in Stanton’s death. About 30 of Stanton’s friends and family members packed the court room, wearing shirts with his face and the dates of his birth and death.
Cooper, 38, was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison, convicted of vehicular homicide, two counts of vehicular assault and possession of methamphetamine.
“I honestly wanted it to be 25 years,” Stanton’s brother, Will Stanton, said after the hearing. “I think the law should be changed. If you take a life, you should get life.”
On Jan. 14, 2013, Cooper, of Aberdeen, crashed into a pickup truck with her sedan head-on in Malone on Highway 12 at about 11:20 p.m. Investigators determined she was driving about 90 mph when her car struck the truck.
Stanton, Cooper’s passenger, was pronounced dead at the scene. The 75-year-old Aberdeen man driving the truck suffered broken ribs, and his wife, 72, had fractures in her back and neck and internal injuries.
When emergency responders pulled Stanton from the vehicle, a pipe used for smoking methamphetamine fell out of the car.
Baggies containing meth were found in Cooper’s clothing, and a blood test was positive for meth.
Cooper was mostly calm through her sentencing, looking straight ahead. She fought tears as she offered an apology to Stanton’s family.
“I’m just really sorry all this happened,” Cooper said. “It’s been one of the hardest and worst things I’ve ever gone through. It’s affected me, my family, my friends. I’m just not the same person I was before this happened. I want to apologize to his family, I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a kid. I have two kids and a grandson, and don’t know what I’d do without them.”
Her attorneys, David Mistachkin and Erik Kupka, asked for the lower end of Cooper’s sentencing range: three years, five months.
“Ms. Cooper made some really bad decisions,” Mistachkin said. “No one’s saying this is not a tragedy. Everyone agrees on that. That’s evidenced by everyone who’s here in this courtroom, both for Ms. Cooper and Mr. Stanton.”
Since the crash, he said, Cooper has been drug-free and planned to turn her life around. He argued the bottom of the range would be appropriate.
“For someone to go without any criminal history, never having even been to jail, to be sentenced to 40, 50 months in prison, right out of the gate — that’s a shock to the system to say the least. I don’t think I can overstate that,” Mistachkin said.
“I think any case where there’s a homicide, a sentence that is 54 months is extremely lenient already,” Deputy Prosecutor Jason Walker said.
The couple Cooper struck are still suffering from the crash.
The woman underwent emergency surgery, after which “they actually had to keep her wounds open for several days while she was kept immobilized,” Walker said.
“Now they tell me they no longer drive at night because they’re too afraid,” he added.
The vehicular assault convictions both carry sentences of two years, five months, but they will be served concurrent to the homicide sentence. The meth conviction carries a six-month sentence, also served concurrently.
In handing down the top of the standard range, Judge Gordon Godfrey said it served as both justice and a message.
“You’re punished for your actions, and it also serves as an example of what people should not be doing,” Godfrey said. “And I don’t think leniency in this type of sentence serves as any example for anyone.”
Godfrey also lamented the limitations of the law surrounding the case.
“It would be interesting to have a legislator come and sit in this courtroom and listen to what we do. And then they go up and pass these laws about what the judge can do regarding sentencing. Is the life of a human being worth 54 months, less good time, less this, less that? Especially when you sit and listen to the facts of the case,” he said.
If that were to happen, he told Cooper, “I have a sneaking hunch you’d be there a lot longer than what I was able to do today.”
Stanton’s cousin, Karli Sansom, said the version of the young man presented at trial wasn’t the one she knew.
“He wasn’t a bad guy,” she said. “He liked to go hunting, fishing, clamming. He moved out for maybe six months and he went down a bad road. He never got a chance” to turn things around.
“I have to live with my (4-year-old) son asking, ‘What happened to Uncle Lucio?’ ” Sansom said.
The only comfort to the family was Cooper’s immediate waiver of her right to appeal. With that, the case is at least over, if not satisfying.
“I respect that, actually,” Sansom said.
Renteria said she’s pained by the fact her brother never got to meet his niece, now two months old.
“It hurts me because I have a daughter and he would have seen her, and now he doesn’t have a chance,” she said.