By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
AP Legal Affairs Writer
COLUMBUS: An Ohio judge used a sentencing in a high-profile drunken driving case to make a point about addictions that was nearly lost in a tug-of-war over the proper focus of the hearing.
At issue for Franklin County Judge David Fais was the penalty due Matthew Cordle, who made a video confessing to the fatal crash that was viewed online more than 2.4 million times.
The daughter of the victim, Vincent Canzani, complained the video had taken the focus off her father’s death. Cordle risked criticism that the video was a play for leniency. The county prosecutor wanted the maximum sentence of eight years, while Cordle’s attorneys wanted a sentence well below the maximum.
Yes, the case was about Cordle and Canzani, Fais acknowledged. But the case affected lots of other people too, he suggested.
“Alcohol and drugs are almost an epidemic in our society,” Fais told the courtroom of members of Cordle’s family, Canzani’s family and reporters from around the country.
Where Cordle was sitting, Fais said, two of every three defendants who come before him suffer from substance abuse or mental illness or both.
Fais then went beyond theory about society’s ills. He announced he was requiring Cordle to serve a six-month sentence for the drunken driving charge, even though prosecutors recommended folding that into the overall sentence as a nod to the remorse Cordle appeared to show. That wasn’t enough, Fais said.
Cordle’s drunken driving was the genesis of the case, said Fais, a judge for 25 years.
“Had Mr. Cordle not been driving that vehicle on that early morning under the influence, we wouldn’t be here,” Fais said.
State data back up Fais. Alcohol was a factor in nearly half the fatal car crashes in Ohio last year, according to the highway patrol. One in three adults seeking publicly funded treatment are alcoholics, Ohio’s addictions agency says.
Cordle’s case was unique because of the video, which begins, “I killed a man,” and then proceeds in dramatic fashion over 3 ½ minutes to document in his words his confession to killing Canzani and his plea not to drink and drive.
Cordle also did something rare in the criminal justice system. He pleaded guilty almost immediately and didn’t fight the charge or evidence.
But as prosecutors noted in a filing pushing for a tough sentence, Cordle’s crime wasn’t unique. O’Brien presented 13 examples of fatal driving accidents in recent years in the central Ohio county, virtually all involving drugs or alcohol.
The broader impact of addictions was always part of the Cordle case. With a few brief remarks, Judge Fais made it the central issue.