Crime prompts DA to seek tougher penalties for repeat offenders
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
On Monday, April 14, a 50-year-old West Chester resident pleaded guilty to driving drunk without a license a year ago – his eighth DUI conviction – and slamming his dodge Ram 2500 into a motorcycle driven by a volunteer firefighter, who died of his injuries two days later.
Robert E. Landis will spend eight to 17 years in prison, according to the terms of a plea agreement negotiated between defense attorney Joseph P. Green Jr. and Assistant District Attorney Marilyn Seide Mitchell. Police officers from the Westtown-East Goshen Regional department who responded to the crash on Rt. 202 at Stanton Avenue in Westtown Township on April 26 at 10:28 p.m. located the helmeted victim, Liam James Crowley, 25, lying in the roadway.
Officers also found Landis with multiple signs of intoxication, said Charles Gaza, chief of staff for the District Attorney’s Office. Gaza, who presented the facts of the case to Chester County Court Judge Anthony A. Sarcione, said blood tests showed that Landis had a blood alcohol content of 0.28. Gaza said Landis had just come from Timothy’s Restaurant in West Chester.
Gaza said Landis had been eligible to get his license back; however, because of his previous DUI convictions, he would have been required to have an ignition interlock installed in his vehicle, a device that the driver must blow into to start the vehicle. If the device detects alcohol, the vehicle will not start. Police officers found interlock paperwork in Landis’s truck, Gaza said. He also recited Landis’s criminal history, which included seven previous offenses from 1981 to 2009.
“Mr. Landis, that’s almost to the absurdity level, isn’t it? And now it takes a life,” the judge said in response to the prior offenses. Sarcione said that he would “somewhat reluctantly” accept the plea after learning that both Crowley’s family and the police had signed off on the agreement.
Landis’s past also includes another death, according to court records. In 1981, he was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of his then-girlfriend. Landis reportedly said he was showing off a gun and it went off accidentally, records said.
Sarcione, who set a sentencing date of May 7, was not the only one troubled by Landis’ drunk-driving history. Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan held a news conference after the hearing to discuss what he views as the inadequacy of the sentencing guidelines and to propose legislation that would increase the penalties for repeat offenders.
Hogan said homicide by vehicle carries a three-year mandatory minimum jail term. “That is not enough when you have this type of hard-core alcoholic who does not care,” said Hogan. He said Landis consumed three times the legal limit – 14 to 15 beers – “enough to make a normal person flat on their back passed out.”
Instead of being deterred by his criminal history, Landis got behind the wheel of what was essentially a “3 ½ ton steel missile,” destroying a young man with a family and a future. “He was somebody’s death waiting to happen,” Hogan said. He credited police for a thorough investigation that made the case against Landis a strong one.
Hogan was joined by Gaza, Westtown-East Goshen Regional Police Department Chief Brenda Bernot, Officer Ted Lewis, and the victim’s parents, Pat and Diane Crowley. Bernot said the public needs to understand that Crowley’s death – and those of others in similar circumstances – was not an accident. “Mr. Landis took a weapon and murdered him,” she said.
Crowley’s parents both advocated Hogan’s proposed legislation. “Liam’s Law” would impose a seven-year mandatory minimum for each victim and result in license revocation for life for defendants with three or more DUI convictions. Diane Crowley she could not put into words the pain of losing a son to this senseless tragedy, “which I refuse to refer to as as accident.” She urged people to do whatever it takes to keep people who have been drinking off the road. “Change what you personally do and change what you tolerate,” she said.
Hogan said he had spoken to State Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr. about the proposed law, who said “it seems like a good idea.” Hogan said he had also conferred with State Sen. Dominic F. Pileggi, who was similarly eager to help. Still, Hogan acknowledged that no timetable existed for the proposal’s future and that it could face an uphill battle since many judges dislike mandatory sentences.
Another hurdle is the perception that DUI crashes are accidents. “It’s not an accident,” he said, particularly when someone has three previous convictions. That kind of person is going to keep getting behind the wheel, he said. “The punishment has to be more severe,” Hogan added. “We’d like to save a few lives.”