NEW YORK (AP/WCBS 880/CBS 2) - A mother will spend four to 12 years in prison for drunkenly driving a station wagon full of children and crashing on a Manhattan highway, killing one of them, as they headed to a slumber party.
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Carmen Huertas tearfully apologized, and spectators audibly wept, as she was sentenced Friday.
"I did not intentionally set out to harm Leandra or any of the other girls,'' she said through sobs. "If I could go back in time, I would.''
The crash last October on the Henry Hudson Parkway killed 11-year-old Leandra Rosado. Her still-devastated family came to court wearing T-shirts and pins bearing her smiling picture.
"What haunts me the most is I promised to protect my daughter. And I feel like I failed her,'' Lenny Rosado told the court in an emphatic and emotional speech.
He was a single father, raising an only child. He said his loss has made him question his faith. He has no reason to rush home any more, no reason to look forward to holidays. His daughter will never grow up, go to college. She will never marry or have children of her own.
However, Rosado said there were no winners as he stood side by side with members of Carmen Heurtas' family, CBS 2's Magee Hickey reported.
"I'm sure she is very remorseful of everything that happened. I believe that everything that came out [when] she spoke today came from her heart," Rosado said.
Rosado can't stop thinking about the night of Leandra's death. He wonders: "Did she scream out, 'Help me, Daddy!''' as the car went airborne?
Huertas pleaded guilty to manslaughter, drunken driving and other charges on Aug. 10, days before a state law inspired by the case took full effect. Lenny Rosado was instrumental in getting the law passed and has become a vocal crusader against drunken driving. Leandra's Law, officially known as the Child Passenger Protection Act, makes drunken driving a felony if a child is in the car.
Huertas got behind the wheel with her 11-year-old daughter and six of her daughter's friends after downing cognac at a family party. A breath test taken at the scene showed Huertas had a blood-alcohol level of 0.12 percent. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.
She got so drunk that other guests told her not to drive and her toddler son's father yanked the boy out of her car, prosecutors said.
She took off anyway, heading for the Bronx, ignoring the children's pleas to slow down and taunting them to raise their hands if they thought they would crash, according to prosecutors.
When they did, the car flew off the Henry Hudson Parkway with such force that pieces of it stuck in trees along the roadway. Leandra, who was not belted in, died within minutes. The other children suffered a variety of injuries; Yiselle Rosario walks with a cane after 11 surgeries.
Huertas' family and lawyer said the 31-year-old mother of three and sometime cosmetics saleswoman wasn't the callous woman authorities have painted her to be. Her attorney said, in asking for leniency, that she had attempted suicide three times and was deeply affected by the accident.
"I am not a monster,'' Huertas, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, said at her sentencing. 'I am a loving mother who made a terrible decision that caused the death of a wonderful child. I know that I must be punished.''
The packed courtroom also included members of Huertas' family, who bowed their heads and wept as she spoke.
Supreme Court Justice Charles Solomon had said during her plea that he would not sentence her to the maximum 5 to 15 years but said Friday said the sentence had to be a deterrent so others wouldn't make the same mistake.
He said he understood the emotional nature of the case.
"It's not about revenge, it's about justice,'' he said.
"I do not understand how someone could drink, get in a car with all those young girls, go 70 mph on the West Side Highway. It's like she was asking for a tragedy," Solomon said.
Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance said no amount of prison time can heal the pain of losing a child.
"Out of this tragic case, we have gained Leandra's Law, an important and powerful piece of legislation that is already being applied to cases statewide,'' he said.
Lenny Rosado said outside court that he is satisfied with the sentencing and will continue to work on drunken driving issues. But, regardless, he's going home to an empty house.
"She still has her family,'' he said of Huertas. "I do not."
Rosado said he plans to petition the parole board each year to make sure Huertas serves the maximum sentence of 12 years and is planning to take his Leandra's law nationwide.
(TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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