Updated: Chaos in courtroom after sentencing in fatal crash
URBANA — Chaos erupted in a Champaign County courtroom Wednesday afternoon after a judge sentenced an Urbana man to prison for killing a University of Illinois student in a traffic crash on campus last fall.
"Don't you know he had an accident?" Willie Craft Jr., 30, screamed at Judge Richard Klaus, after having called the judge a "bitch" more than once inside the crowded courtroom. "That man had an accident. Do you know that? This isn't justice."
Klaus immediately sentenced the younger Craft to six months in the county jail for direct contact criminal contempt of court and had him taken into custody, just moments after having sent his father to prison for 42 months for causing the death of Mimi Liu on Oct. 9, 2013.
The younger Craft could ask the judge to reconsider the sentence, the maximum Klaus could have imposed on Craft for criminal contempt without a trial.
The elder Craft, 59, pleaded guilty in early June to reckless homicide for causing the death of the 20-year-old agribusiness student. She was walking on Lincoln Avenue between classes when she was struck by Craft as he erratically drove his pickup, apparently suffering the effects of extremely low blood sugar from diabetes.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Craft, the defendant, said in a weak voice at least 12 times prior to the imposition of sentence. "I'm going to have to pay for it the rest of my life."
Craft's other son, Tyler Craft, 27, was also taken into custody by court security officers after the hearing when he continued to yell and scream in the hallway outside the courtroom about what had just happened. He allegedly yelled at Miss Liu's parents as they scurried from the courtroom.
"It is of paramount importance to the court that people be deterred from employing a vehicle as lethal weapon," said Klaus, saying he had considered the mitigating evidence about the elder Craft's poor health caused by diabetes.
The state had agreed to ask for no more than 3 1/2 years when it negotiated the plea, dismissing a far more serious charge of aggravated driving under the influence which had been filed because Craft had by-products of cannabis in his system on the day of the crash.
"To a large degree, mitigation was already factored into the negotiated plea," said Klaus.
A second UI student, Spandana Mantravadi, 20, was also critically injured in the crash but survived. She suffered multiple injuries, including bleeding in the brain and a severely broken ankle that she said continues to leave her in constant pain.
The sentencing hearing was emotion-packed even before the outburst of Craft Jr.
Miss Liu's father, Zhi Liu, read aloud for almost seven minutes his written statement about the devastating effects of his daughter's death on him, his wife, and their 12-year-old daughter. His wife was also present.
"Our family will never again be complete or whole. Without our beautiful Mimi, none of us will ever be the same," he said.
Craft watched Liu intently as Liu read, both men choking back tears.
Defense attorneys Dave Rumley of Bloomington and Monroe McWard of Springfield called several witnesses to testify on Craft's behalf, starting with the medical doctor who has treated Craft for diabetes since 2007.
Dr. Kingsley Onyemere said that prior to the crash, Craft's diabetes was "reasonably controlled" with diet, exercise and insulin. But since January, when he was put back in jail, his blood sugar readings have wildly fluctuated.
"I would not say it's controlled (in jail)," Onyemere said. Low blood sugar, he said, can cause a loss of consciousness and damage to major organs and nerves.
Urbana police found Craft confused and lethargic after the crash, which happened after he had driven south on Lincoln Avenue in an erratic manner for about 14 city blocks. He was first spotted weaving around Fairview Avenue, north of University Avenue, and continued doing that until his pickup hit the retaining wall alongside Illini Grove, about 50 yards north of Pennsylvania Avenue after having run down Miss Liu and Mantravadi.
Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, testified that she reviewed Craft's records and concluded that in spite of a special diabetic diet he has been getting in jail, his food remains heavy in simple carbohydrates, which turn to sugar in his system. Craft has also lost 20 pounds while in jail, she noted.
"This is somebody whose health is really deteriorating," she testified, admitting to Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Dornik that her specialty is in community health and that she is not a doctor or a nutritionist.
Adding to the sense of sadness was the testimony of Craft's 14-year-old granddaughter, whom he adopted and has raised as his daughter. Vanessa Craft said she depended on her widower grandfather to do the cooking, play with her, and take her places before he was jailed. She's about to enter high school.
Arguing for the 3 1/2-year prison sentence, Dornik said others like Craft must be deterred from driving.
"He deliberately disregarded his medical condition and made choices. He could have eaten when he wanted to and could have managed his diabetes but did he? No. He chose to drive despite telling the Urbana Police Department that he hadn't driven in three years. He chose not to eat breakfast despite knowing he needed to," she said.
"This crime, this entire factual situation was entirely preventable," she argued, saying that pedestrians on a sidewalk have a right to feel safe from passing motorists.
She also asked, rhetorically, why Craft chose to smoke cannabis at the age of 58.
"Actions, as usual, speak louder than words," Dornik said. "The only person whose life is over is Mimi's."
Rumley argued that Craft indeed should not have been driving that day. His blood sugar level was 23; a normal level is between 70 and 130, he said.
But he urged the judge to consider probation for Craft, who he said had no criminal record, had worked his entire adult life at the UI, and had raised his granddaughter as his own child.
He said Craft's condition has worsened in the six months he's been in the county jail despite the best efforts of jail staff to monitor and treat his diabetes.
"They're doing it right and his blood sugar is all over the road. I don't have any reason to believe it would be any better in DOC. He's a shrinking man. He's dying. He's suffering," said Rumley, who added that he and his daughter could help each other should he be allowed to remain in the community.