Murphy Madison Gross, 17, was sentenced Thursday in Anchorage Superior Court to one year in prison for criminally negligent homicide, stemming from a distracted-driving collision that killed a 27-year-old mother of two in February 2013.
State prosecutors originally argued Gross was texting behind the wheel when he ran a red light and killed Catherine Cope. But assistant district attorney Daniel Shorey said during the sentencing that had the case gone before jurors, the state would not have been able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gross was reading a text at the time of the collision.
Instead, Shorey and defense attorney John Murtagh urged the court to consider Gross' actions a case of distracted driving.
A grand jury indicted the teenager several months after the fatal accident on manslaughter, felony texting-while-driving and other charges. Prosecutors said Gross stole his father's new SUV and was smoking pot with friends in the vehicle and driving without a license the night of the crash.
The parties fought over the admission of a blood sample taken from Gross an hour after the accident. The sample tested positive for marijuana. But the court found the test was conducted without probable cause, and the evidence was suppressed, according to testimony.
Gross pleaded guilty in July to criminally negligent homicide as part of plea deal. He also agreed to plead guilty to three misdemeanor assault charges.
For the assault charges, Judge Kevin Saxby imposed six months of community work service. The state recommended a month of jail time for each of those charges.
Catherine Cope, originally of Bethel, was killed in the crash as she headed home from Guido's Pizza, according to court records. Her husband, Ryan Cope, who worked at the restaurant, was driving. Two of Ryan's co-workers were also in the Jeep Grand Cherokee when the Chevrolet Tahoe driven by Gross slammed into the Jeep.
Gross denied sending text messages just before the crash but admitted to taking his eyes off the road. Police seized Gross' cellphone and found he'd sent and received 14 texts and four phone calls in a half-hour period before the accident, according to court testimony.
The final text came at 2:36 a.m., about a minute before the estimated time of the accident, prosecutors said.
In Alaska, the Legislature explicitly outlawed texting by motorists in 2012. Texting-while-driving charges are normally misdemeanors, but Gross was charged with a felony because the offense ended in injury or death.
Catherine Cope's heart stopped beating on the way to Alaska Native Medical Center. Doctors resuscitated her, but she was declared brain dead at 8:42 a.m., six hours after the crash, according to the charges.
Gross agrees he was distracted
Shorey recommended a sentence of three years with two years suspended for the criminally negligent homicide charge, which the court imposed.
Contending that some may consider the sentence lenient, the prosecutor reasoned it fits within guidelines set by the Legislature. Given the outcome of similar cases, he said, anything above a year would be on the high end.
Shorey said isolation was not the state's goal given Gross' age.
The teen appears to have above average prospects for rehabilitation, Shorey said. "Because he is a youthful offender, a significant amount of suspended time ensures that rehabilitation goals are met."
Murtagh, Gross' attorney, asked the judge to ponder what the case was not. It was not a case of speeding or running a red light, he said.
Convenience store surveillance near the scene of the crash -- the intersection of A Street and Northern Lights Boulevard -- shows Gross "absolutely hit the brakes" before entering the roadway or the crosswalk, Murtagh argued.
It is lawful for drivers to send and receive text messages if their vehicles are stopped, said Murtagh, adding the prosecution could not prove his client had been reading his cellphone moments before the crash.
"He agrees he was distracted and accepts that," he said.
Remorse vs. regret
Ryan Cope told the judge he hopes Gross realizes his potential and becomes a valuable member of society.
"We really don't need to lose someone else. ... It will give me a sense that my wife has not gone in vain."
The court agreed to remove Ryan's name from a list of people Gross was barred from contacting. Ryan Cope said he would not be opposed to speaking with Gross if and when the teen felt compelled to do so.
Ryan Cope added he is frustrated by the deal struck between the parties, however. He said his daughters have been sentenced to a life without their mother while Gross will likely be home before Christmas.
Gross will be released in eight months for good behavior while in custody. He has already been incarcerated for several months, said Shorey.
Ryan Cope's mother, Dale Cope, was not as forgiving to the teen who killed her daughter-in-law. She said she believed Gross could not yet grasp the meaning of remorse. Instead, she believes he is focusing on regret. Regret over what others may think of him. Regret that his father did not show up at the scene of the wreck sooner.
"For the rest of your life, you will know what you did regardless of how the circumstances are presented" in court, she said.
Gross said he was deeply sorry for the pain he caused, briefly turning to face his victim's family as he did so.
"I hope that one day you will think of me as a changed person," Gross said. "I also ask that the court see me as not a kid that made mistakes, but as a kid that is very remorseful and is trying to make something of my life."
After the hearing, Dale Cope said she thought he was using the term remorse casually, that he didn't understand its true meaning.
"Actual remorse needs to be developed through experiences," she said. "His actions are not consistent with remorse."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing