Christina Renee Crowe was found guilty in the death of 7-year-old Bobby Joe Couch Thursday afternoon and sentenced by Newton County Superior Court Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. to serve at least 10 years of a 25-year prison term.
Crowe chose to have a bench trial, allowing the judge to hear the case and to decide her sentence. The 29-year-old sat between her attorney’s from the Public Defenders Office, Deepa Patel and Chief Public Defender Anthony Carter, while the stipulated facts of the case were presented to the judge. Crowe was charged with loosing control of her vehicle on Nov. 7, 2008, while driving on Ga. Highway 162 and crashing the car into a tree shortly before 12:40 p.m. In the car with her at the time was her 7-week-old daughter and two little boys, Bobby Joe and his 5-year-old brother, Crowe’s cousins by marriage.
Regan Vater, a former Newton County firefighter testified that he was headed toward Porterdale when he noticed a bumper in the middle of the highway, then Crowe’s car crashed on the side of the road with a child standing up in the backseat. Vater told the judge that he went to the car and saw there was a baby in the backseat with "major" head trauma.
"She was just waving her arms," he said.
With the help of other witnesses the baby was carried to safety and the 5-year-old was pulled from the car as well. That’s when Vater noticed Bobby.
"I looked down and I saw that the other boy had passed away," he said. "He was slumped over."
He then moved on to Crowe who was in the driver seat of the vehicle. She was moaning, according to Vater, but either would not or could not respond to any of his questions. He testified that he had responded to similar situations during his career as a firefighter and that he did not noticed a smell of alcohol in the vehicle, nor did Crowe show signs of intoxication.
Newton County Assistant District Attorney Anne Kurtz asked Vater what his primary concern was when he came upon the accident and he immediately said that it was taking care of the children in the car, admitting that he was more concerned with that and with checking Crowe’s vital signs then determining if she was under the influence at the time.
But according to Kurtz, there were witnesses that said Crowe had been intoxicated when she picked up the two Couch boys from the witnesses’ residence she smelled of alcohol, which was roughly 10 minutes prior to the deathly accident. When troopers from the Georgia State Patrol began investigating the accident they reportedly found a bottle of 77 proof alcohol in the driver’s side floorboard of the car. Prior to drawing her blood at the hospital, another trooper observed that Crowe slurred her speech, had glassy eyes and smelled like alcohol at the hospital. Although the defense objected to the evidence of Crowe’s blood test being admitted in court, their motion to suppress was previously denied by the judge, allowing the court to hear that when her blood test came back it was 0.207 — the legal limit is .08.
Crowe’s husband Daniel took the stand and said that his wife had not had a drink in nearly 10 months (she had been pregnant and had been breast feeding until a week before), and that she had come to his office earlier in the day to pick up his paycheck and show off their new baby. According to him Crowe had not shown any signs of being intoxicated while she was there, roughly an hour before the accident.
Two other people took the stand in Crowe’s defense, saying they had visited her at the hospital and had not smelled alcohol on her or noticed her acting as if she were drunk. Kurtz asked one witness, William Pitts, if he was trained in detecting such things and he admitted that he was not.
In closing statements Patel asked that Johnson find Crowe not guilty of the charges – first degree homicide by vehicle, serious injury by vehicle, second degree homicide by vehicle, driving under the influence, endangering a child while driving under the influence, failure to maintain lane, driving on the wrong side of the road and open container – against her. She reminded the judge that witnesses said she did not appear intoxicated and that if her blood alcohol was as high as was stated then she would have appeared horribly inebriated and according to her husband she had not been when he saw her at around 11:30 a.m.
Kurtz argued that nearly five hours after the accident, Crowe’s blood alcohol level was still nearly three times the legal limit.
"While the observations of human beings can be flawed, blood does not lie," she said. "Mrs. Crowe is not stepping up today and claiming responsibility for her actions… Bobby Couch lost his life and [Crowe’s daughter] has suffered severe head trauma," continued Kurtz. "She is not accepting responsibility, nor has she ever."
Several people spoke to the judge on behalf of Crowe prior to sentencing, most talking about how she had changed her life and become involved in church after being charged in Bobby Joe’s death, and how she was a loving and devoted mother to her three children.
"She has accepted responsibility," said Patel. "She feels responsible and has taken so many measures to make amends for what happened."
Bobby Joe’s aunt Jhie told Johnson of holidays spent with her nephew missing and about the hole his death had left in all of their lives, calling Crowe’s decision to drive that day selfish.
"I will never forgive Christina Crowe for hurting my brother, my nephew and for taking the life of Bobby," she said. "She still gets to go home to her kids at the end of the day. She still gets to hug and kiss them but I will never again get to do that with Bobby," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"It’s amazing that someone had to be killed for someone else’s life to change," said Joseph Couch, Bobby Joe’s father, looking at Crowe who refused to look at him.
"An admission of guilt would have been easier to take then just sitting over there doing nothing," he said.
While the defense requested five years in prison with the remainder spent on probation, Johnson agreed with the prosecution, and along with her jail time and probation, she must also pay a multitude of fines and surcharges to the court, as well as restitution to the Couch family. Crowe was immediately taken into custody, sobbing as she practically ran out of the courtroom.
"Today was a tough day for everyone involved," said Kurtz. "Justice was certainly done and I am pleased with the judge's decision. While this conviction cannot ever make up for the loss of Bobby Joe Couch, I hope that in some small way it can provide the Couch family with closure."