Lane Douglas Wyatt, 24, was sentenced to nearly 18 years in prison Friday for killing 20-year-old Citari Townes-Sweatt in a drunken-driving collision last year.
Townes-Sweatt died June 30, 2013, after Wyatt, an Air Force airman at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, ran a red light in East Anchorage and hit the car she was driving.
Wyatt entered guilty pleas to second-degree murder, first-degree assault and drunken driving and could have received up to 30 years in prison. He has no prior criminal record in Alaska.
Superior Court Judge Kevin Saxby said he recognized the many factors favorable to Wyatt but considered the death among the most serious of similar crimes.
"(Wyatt) had several opportunities to avoid the accident that were recklessly ignored," the judge said. Assistant district attorney Will Taylor said friends tried to prevent Wyatt from driving; the friend who needed a ride even offered to walk the mile or so home.
During his statement to the court, Wyatt said there was nothing he could say or do to make things right. He apologized to Townes-Sweatt's family.
"I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to forgive myself for that," he said.
I truly forgive you
Both families, unknown to each other before the collision, cried openly in the Anchorage courtroom as the sentence was announced.
Townes-Sweatt's mother and sister said they have forgiven Wyatt and that he should find a way to forgive himself. Jamaesha Sweatt, sister of the victim, said Citari would also have forgiven Wyatt. The length of the sentence surprised her, she said outside the courtroom.
"She (Townes-Sweatt) is not coming back, so what sense does it make to take someone else's life?" Sweatt asked. "But there are consequences."
Lanita Sweatt-Sanders, the victim's mother, attended the hearing telephonically. She works on the North Slope and could not attend, Jamaesha said. The mother said that since the day her daughter died, her life has been a downward spiral of loss. Since then, she has lost two family members, including another daughter.
"I truly forgive you," Lanita said. "What matters is that you forgive yourself. … I miss my daughter. I'm sure your parents will miss you while you're away too."
Prosecutor: No drugs or alcohol in victims system
Townes-Sweatt had been the first person to die in an alcohol-related crash in Anchorage in 14 months. But her death was the first in a string of similar deaths over the next two months that prompted the Anchorage Police Department to ramp up DUI enforcement with the help of citizen volunteers. Magnets with pictures of DUI victims, including Townes-Sweatt, adorned patrol cars in an effort to hasten a change in the trend.
Police said Wyatt was driving a Chrysler 300 northbound on Boniface Parkway at a "high rate of speed" just before 4:58 a.m. when he ran a red light at DeBarr Road and "T-boned" a Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by Townes-Sweatt, who died at the scene.
Four passengers in the Monte Carlo were injured and taken to hospitals for treatment, according to court documents. Three passengers in the Chrysler 300 were injured as well.
Some of those injured in Townes-Sweatt's car continue to deal with injuries, Taylor said at the sentencing.
At the scene, Wyatt admitted to drinking five shots of hard alcohol and three beers at Chilkoot Charlie's before driving, according to court documents.
Before the crash, Wyatt had been at a friend's house between 2 and 3 a.m. People there were drinking, but the state has no evidence that Wyatt continued drinking, said Taylor.
Police and prosecutors previously refused to say if an autopsy had determined Townes-Sweatt had drugs or alcohol in her system, citing the pending court case. Taylor said during the sentencing that she did not.
The state recommended a sentence of 21 1/2 years. Taylor contended the case was difficult to prosecute. He said Wyatt participated in a public safety announcement the Air Force will use to warn members about the dangers of impaired and distracted driving.
"He (Wyatt) is not a monster," Taylor said.
Several of Wyatt's family members spoke in court.
They highlighted his willingness to immediately accept responsibility. They also pleaded for forgiveness from Townes-Sweatt's family. Bret Wyatt, Lane's father, called the forgiveness they have already received "astounding."
The father said Wyatt had confided to him and his mother in the past year that he wished he had died instead.
Bret Wyatt asked the judge to consider his son's lack of criminal history when fashioning a sentence. Wyatt will forever bear the burden of a murder conviction.
Staff Sgt. Corina Arangure, Wyatt's immediate supervisor before the crash and after his release on bail, said she never questioned his integrity. He immediately took full responsibility for what happened, she said in court.
"Rumors were flying but he did not care," Arangure said. "He could not express enough how remorseful he was about that day."