After a Monday afternoon filled with tears and anguish as families recounted their struggles with a drunk driving tragedy, Judge Howard Maltz tried to send emotionally exhausted families home with some sense of hope along with justice.
Maltz imposed a sentence of 20 years in prison and 10 years of probation for Dalton Roy Edwards, 22, for his role as the driver in a DUI crash that killed two young women on Jan. 9, 2016.
It was a significant sentence, but it wasn’t the maximum allowed. Edwards had previously agreed to a plea deal with a range of 15-23 years.
The sentence also includes a permanent revocation of Edwards’ driver’s license when he is released and 100 hours of community service while on probation.
“There are others in the Florida state prison (system) right now that have gone under similar circumstances,” Maltz said. “While in prison, they have made something out of themselves and have performed community service while in prison.
“I’m hopeful that while you’re in prison, you don’t just sit there and … just hang out for the period of time that you’re there. I hope you can make something out of yourself while you’re there and give something back to the community and speak about the dangers of drinking and driving.”
But even the judge admitted that it’s difficult to feel anything but sadness for a situation that saw two families lose vibrant women and another see a man lose a large portion of his adult life to prison.
Edwards was driving a pickup truck in Flagler Estates when he ran a stop sign and crashed into another vehicle, according to investigators. The Florida Highway Patrol investigation concluded that Edwards’ truck was traveling at 63 mph in a 25 mph zone when it struck the other vehicle.
Hours after the crash, Edwards’ blood alcohol level registered .105, above the legal limit of .08.
Killed in the crash was passenger Katherine Stecker, 19, of St. Augustine. Also killed was the driver of the Chevrolet Trailblazer that was hit, Victoria Sutton, 20, of Tennessee.
“Those two young ladies were in the prime of their lives — as you were, too,” Maltz said. “And they’re not going to be able to enjoy all of the things that they had to look forward to and their families had to look forward to for them: colleges, weddings, kids, families, etc.”
Family members and friends filled most of the seats in the St. Johns County courtroom during the hearing, which lasted more than two hours — after they had already waited more than two hours for it to begin.
A parade of grieving loved ones spoke of the pain of losing Stecker and Sutton.
Stecker’s family had already been hit with one heartbreaking death when Katherine’s father, Tom Stecker, died after a battle with ALS on Dec. 1, 2015.
“Losing my husband of 22 years broke my heart,” Lynn O’Donnell-Stecker said. “Losing Katie six weeks later took my heart and soul away. To describe my life without Katie is like living in a world without color.”
Sutton’s family also spoke of the unimaginable loss.
Her parents, Lisa and Ronnie Sutton, described the perilous first days and years of their daughter’s life. She was born premature and with heart problems that necessitated the insertion of a pacemaker at 3 days old. She ended up having eight surgeries as a child but still grew up into a promising young adult.
“The loss of Victoria has devastated our family,” Lisa said. “It still seems so unreal. There’s so much our family has been robbed of.”
A large contingent of supporters also came out for Edwards and asked that Maltz show some mercy toward him. There was no history of breaking the law, and his family argued that they are also suffering in this tragedy.
Just before he was sentenced, Edwards turned to face the families of Stecker and Sutton and asked for their forgiveness.
“I am greatly sorry for what I have done to your families,” he said. “All three families have suffered greatly from my actions.
“I know there is nothing I can say or do to change how you feel about me or bring back the life of your loved ones, but I hope that I am given the opportunity to teach others about the horrible things that can happen due to drinking and driving.”