Champaign County Judge John Kennedy said that in spite of overwhelmingly glowing reports about Albert Fleming, he could not sentence the 21-year-old man to probation for causing the death of Anthony Pauls because it would lessen the seriousness of what he had done.
URBANA — Two young men whose lives tragically intertwined on a city street in Urbana last fall had much in common: popularity among friends, industry, a desire to get a good education, and loving families. They had also both been drinking the night their paths met.
One was killed; the other is now headed to prison for 14 years.
On Thursday, Champaign County Judge John Kennedy said that in spite of overwhelmingly glowing reports about Albert Fleming, he could not sentence the 21-year-old man to probation for causing the death of Anthony Pauls because it would lessen the seriousness of what he had done.
Fleming was convicted in June by a jury of aggravated driving under the influence for causing the death of Mr. Pauls, 22, and of leaving the scene of an accident involving death.
The incident happened Oct. 13, 2012, on University Avenue between Lake and Race streets, just east of Carle Foundation Hospital, about 11:50 p.m.
Mr. Pauls, a University of Illinois student from Lake in the Hills, was crossing University from north to south when he was struck by Fleming.
Fleming admitted he had consumed cognac at his home in the 1500 block of Williamsburg Drive in Champaign about 10 minutes before leaving there with a friend to drop off another person in Urbana. His blood-alcohol concentration was 0.11 percent.
Mr. Pauls had also been drinking. Toxicology tests put his blood-alcohol concentration at 0.25 percent. He died about eight hours after the collision, a victim of multiple blunt force traumatic injuries.
At trial, Fleming testified that the collision was unavoidable and that he didn't feel impaired when it happened. He admitted, however, that he took off because he was scared. Urbana police found his car not far away several minutes later. He told police his windshield was damaged by a tree branch.
Kennedy said Thursday that when he watched Fleming testify, he believed that the defendant's remorse was genuine.
"After the event of striking Mr. Pauls, Mr. Fleming panicked. But he certainly did the wrong thing" by fleeing, said the judge.
"It's important for people to understand ... that you don't have to be a chronic offender to kill someone. You don't have to be severely intoxicated. His case points out that it really can happen in only one event of being under the influence and then driving. I think people here understand that. I think a lot of people in society don't," said the judge.
His courtroom was filled to capacity with about 60 people, most of them family and friends of Fleming. Mr. Pauls' parents and an uncle were also present.
Fleming's attorney, Baku Patel of Urbana, gave the judge more than a dozen letters of support for Fleming and had eight people testify for him, including Kristin Baker, the owner of the Sleep Inn, 1908 N. Lincoln Ave., U.
Baker testified that she had hired Fleming when he was 19 to work as a front desk clerk and was so impressed with him that she promoted him about a year later to assistant general manager. He was working at the hotel 40 or more hours a week and going to Parkland College at the time of his arrest.
Others testified about Fleming's industriousness, respect for authority, and stellar citizenship. His father, Albert Fleming Sr., told the judge that his wife died when the younger Fleming was 9 but that his son remained "outgoing and bubbly."
"I made sure I kept him busy. I didn't just send him (to events). I went with him," said the elder Fleming, a deacon in his church who expressed his condolences to Mr. Pauls' family.
"I ask God to keep you and hold you through this crisis. What happened here is totally an accident. What happened here is not in my son's character. On behalf of Al, I ask you for your forgiveness," the elder Fleming said.
George Pauls, Mr. Pauls' father, had submitted a three-page letter to the judge outlining his son's many achievements in athletics, academics and the workforce. Mr. Pauls was a senior majoring in electrical engineering and working on a minor in history. He had worked two summers as an intern for Motorola Solutions in Schaumburg.
"This is the single most tragic event to happen to me and my family. The four-day jury trial ... was the second most difficult time for us. It did not provide us any emotional comfort nor closure, there will never be closure. When the guilty verdicts were read, no feelings whatsoever came over us, other than the continued reminder and fact that we will never be able to speak to or enjoy the physical presence of my son," he wrote.
Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Dornik had sought the maximum sentence of 29 years for Fleming — 14 for the DUI and 15 for leaving the scene.
"He made terrible decision after terrible decision after terrible decision. Nobody wins. Everybody loses," she said.
But Patel said Fleming's case cried out for the minimum, noting that Fleming had no prior police contacts whatsoever and that there was nothing intentional in his actions. He said Fleming's family, religion, work ethic and education all spoke well for him.
"He will be a convicted felon the rest of his life. That is going to be a major obstacle," Patel said.
Fleming apologized to Mr. Pauls' family and his own for what he had done.
"If given a second chance, I will talk to teens about the seriousness of drinking and driving and how life is a gift, how one mistake can ruin a whole life," he said.
Under truth-in-sentencing, Fleming will have to serve at least 10 years. He was given credit for 308 days already served in the county jail.