Shawn Newell gets maximum sentence for crash that killed Ripton man
MIDDLEBURY — Heather Kerr had waited 362 days to address the man responsible for her brother Brian’s death, and she wasn’t going to hold back. Her words pierced the silence of the Middlebury courtroom on Monday and landed squarely upon a visibly shaken Shawn Newell.
Newell, on April 20, 2017, was speeding northbound on Route 7 in Salisbury when he drove into the southbound lane to pass a slower vehicle and struck, head-on, a vehicle containing Christina Walker and Brian Kerr of Ripton.
“They said his aorta was torn,” Heather Kerr said between sobs in describing the specific injury that killed her 40-year-old brother Brian.
“(Newell) literally broke my brother’s heart.”
Addison County Superior Court Judge Helen Toor took those words and other evidence to heart before sentencing Newell, 34, to six to 15 years in prison on the charge of gross negligent driving with death resulting. Toor admonished Newell while pronouncing sentence in front of the assembled crowd at the Frank Mahady Courthouse. She said she would have imposed a tougher sentence if she could, though the penalty she handed down was the toughest possible for the felony offense for which he had pleaded guilty earlier this winter.
“We have children who are going to grow up without a father, parents who’ve lost their son … and a fiancé who will never marry the love of her life,” Toor said. “And there’s just no excuse.”
Newell on the fateful morning was commuting from Springfield to his job with D&F Excavating in New Haven. A Vermont State Police investigation revealed Newell was speeding and driving with a suspended license when he saw the Walker/Kerr vehicle in the oncoming lane. There was no traffic gap available for him to re-enter the northbound lane of Route 7. He chose to slide into the southbound breakdown lane — but so did Walker, who was driving the other vehicle. A horrific collision ensued.
Kerr died at the scene. Walker — his fiancé with whom he had three children — sustained a collapsed lung, a fractured kneecap, a fractured foot, damaged knee ligaments, and various cuts and bruises. Walker was in the courtroom on Monday, but was so emotionally shaken she asked someone else to read her statement to Toor and Newell.
Newell, wearing a striped hoodie, kept his eyes fixed primarily on the court bench and quietly wept through portions of the proceedings.
“There is not a day that goes by I don’t wonder what it would be like if Brian were still here with us, with the plans we had for ourselves,” Walker wrote. “We sit here thinking we have forever with our loved ones. You (Newell) showed me that day how fast everything can change.”
Walker recalled how her daughter asked to go to the cemetery to be with her dad on her birthday following the accident. She said Brian Kerr will never know the excitement of seeing his children get married, graduate or attend prom.
“I think about all the things he will miss out on, that they will miss out on … and all that I will miss without my fiancé,” Walker continued. “Now he’s gone, and all because a guy was late for work.”
Walker recalled hearing Kerr exhale his last breath, and how that cathartic moment will haunt her for the rest of her days.
“Sleeping doesn’t come easy when I close my eyes,” she said.
One of Kerr’s daughters, 17-year-old Cori Rose Kerr, was one of the seven people to deliver comments at Newell’s sentencing hearing.
“Because of you, I don’t have a dad any more,” she said to Newell.
“Because of you, I won’t have my dad walking me down the aisle when I get married.”
SOME FAMILY’S PAIN
Heather Kerr, an LNA at Porter Hospital, was on duty last April 20. She recalled seeing workers hose blood out of an ambulance parked at the hospital that day and felt sorry for the unknown family that was having a bad day.
She eventually learned the blood had been her brother’s. Her worst fears were confirmed when she was led to a hospital room containing her brother’s body.
“There was nothing I could do to help him,” Kerr said in the courtroom, her voice brimming with emotion. “For the first time in my life, I’m not able to help my brother. He’s been there for me my whole life, and I can’t return the favor to him. I can’t do CPR. I can’t do anything other than I start holding him and cleaning the blood from his ear. I start cleaning my brother because it’s the only thing I can do… ”
Those offering comments urged Toor to impose the toughest possible sentence on Newell. And she did, based in part on his past history behind the wheel.
Newell’s criminal record includes a 2004 conviction for negligent driving, for which he was sentenced to probation. He was subsequently cited for violating that probation “on several occasions,” according to Toor. She also noted Newell’s 2006 conviction for attempting to elude police and reckless endangerment, for which he again received probation. Newell received a jail sentence of six to 12 months for violating the terms of his probation, according to Toor.
“It appears from this record that you’ve been driving recklessly for years,” Toor said to Newell. “Based on the record that I have, it’s shocking to me that you would continue this type of behavior.”
Toor pointed to court affidavits featuring comments from some of Newell’s passengers who indicated they were “afraid they were going to die and were screaming for you to stop.”
“It appears to the court that you’ve put others at risk on many other occasions and that … you have been thinking only of yourself and not of your passengers, not of the public that you put into danger,” Toor told Newell. “It’s clear from this record it was just a matter of time before something like this would happen.”
Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans prosecuted the case.
“The state believes that Mr. Newell has heard before, ‘If you keep driving that way, you’re going to kill someone,’” Wygmans told Toor.
“He took out a very caring, hard-working father of three.”
Wygmans said he believes a sentence of six to 15 years will send a message to Newell an others “you have to think twice before you drive this way.”
Toor credited Newell for agreeing to plead guilty rather than fighting the case and thus prolonging heartache for Walker and the Kerr family. Toor urged Newell, while in jail, to think about how he could give back to the community.
“My sentence can’t give anything back to this family; it can’t give them back a father, a husband, a son, a friend, a cousin,” Toor said. “There’s no way that I can do anything to repair the pain you’ve caused, and there’s nothing you can do to repair that … What I can do is impose punishment for what you’ve done, particularly in light of your past history. I can try to give you the message that this reckless driving cannot continue.”
It’s a punishment that Toor hopes will send a message to other reckless drivers.
“Hopefully I can teach others they can’t drive this way, and perhaps save others from the type of damage that you’ve caused,” Toor said to Newell.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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