A woman sitting in a wheelchair, one of her lower legs missing, said Friday that she had been waiting more than two years for an apology.
“I thought, this girl will come forward and say 'I’m so sorry,'” Colene Bald Eagle said in federal court.
The awaited words came an hour later, when 27-year-old Sophia Janis apologized for checking Facebook on her iPhone while driving and causing a collision that killed one woman, injured another and led to Bald Eagle’s amputation.
Janis, then an Oglala Sioux Tribe corrections officer, was driving a Department of Corrections vehicle on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when the accident occurred July 30, 2015.
“I’m sorry, I’m very sorry,” Janis said, explaining she couldn’t communicate with the victims beforehand due to her lawyer’s orders. “I can’t live with myself sometimes … Please have mercy on me and my family.”
Driving while checking her phone, which Janis described as “bad judgment,” will cost the Wounded Knee woman three years of freedom. She pleaded guilty in April to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced Friday to 37 months in prison and three years of supervised release, the maximum penalty she faced.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken rejected Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Kelderman’s five-year probation recommendation, part of Janis’ plea agreement with the government.
Viken described the recommendation as disturbing and unacceptable after Janis caused the death of Theresa Martinez, a 58-year-old Martin resident, and injuries to her friends Bald Eagle and Audrey Yellow Hair.
The three women were traveling west on U.S. Highway 18 in a minivan, on their way to play bingo, when Janis collided with their vehicle, the court was told.
Janis was heading east on the same road in a Ford Expedition transport vehicle, and while checking Facebook on her phone, attempted to turn north on Bureau of Indian Affairs Highway 27. She ended up crossing into oncoming traffic.
“My mother died a horrible death and was wide awake till her final breath,” Shawn Imitates Dog, one of Martinez’s children, said at the start of Friday’s hearing at the Rapid City federal courthouse. He talked about Martinez’s grave injuries and the decision to take his mother off life support a few days later, “the toughest decision a kid should never have to make.”
He said to Janis: “I don’t know what was so important on your phone to distract you.”
Janis' father shook the hand of Imitates Dog and hugged Bald Eagle after he spoke before Viken, asking for leniency.
Defense lawyer Erin Bolinger had argued also for a probationary sentence. Citing a study by iPhone maker Apple, she said an average person unlocks his or her phone 80 times a day — once every 12 minutes — driven by the same compulsion that had affected Janis.
“We’re all guilty of some form of that if you have a smartphone,” Bolinger said.
Janis didn’t have a criminal history and had devoted her life to family and work, the lawyer said. Putting Janis in prison, she said, would just bring suffering to her children, who are between 5 years and 4 months old.
Viken, however, said he needed to hand down punishment for a serious criminal offense that resulted in a terrible loss.
Distracted driving creates “enormous risk in modern society,” the judge said. He quoted from a recent publication by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which stated that in 2014, some 3,100 people were killed and 431,000 injured in crashes involving distracted drivers.
As part of Janis’ sentence, Viken ordered her to perform 100 hours of community service to educate the public about the dangers of combining driving with phone use.
Because Janis is still nursing her youngest child, the court gave her 30 more days with the infant before starting her prison sentence.