Widow extends incredible grace during drama-filled sentencing

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Yesterday’s sentencing hearing for the man that killed Bob Arndt while driving drunk was every bit the emotional drama that has spawned countless TV and film works set in a courtroom. It was a two-tissue box morning. In fact, before Judge Tim Day banged the gavel on Rudy Isla-Mejico, sentencing him to 10-15 years, he admitted it would be a challenge for journalists present to convey “what we all—these 20 people present here in the courtroom today—have witnessed.”

The Defense rests

Rudy Henry Isla-Mejico (TCSO)

In a sentencing hearing, both the defense and prosecution present reasons why the accused deserves either leniency or a harsher sentence. The defense often uses the opportunity to do some character building for their client. They often call friends and family to make an impassioned plea to the judge.

Defense attorney John H. Robinson read a letter from his client written to Arndt’s widow Melanie Harrice just weeks after the accident on June 30, 2017. At the time, Robinson explained to his client that, because of a presumption of innocence, there was no way he could deliver that letter to the grieving widow.

“Mr. Isla accepts complete responsibility for his circumstances,” Robinson said. Then, paraphrasing Isla-Mejico’s letter, he stated, “He is ashamed and has the deepest sorrow. With a soul in shambles he asks for your forgiveness as he accept the punishment.”

“Our Lord’s divine punishment,” Isla-Mejico wrote. “For only God will ask for retribution. I’ve often asked God if I could have been the one killed. I pray for Mr. Arndt and his family every day.”

Isla-Mejico’s wife, Rocio Paucar, made a brief plea.

“We are sorry. Words cannot change things,” she said. “This accident has broken two families now. We ask for compassion.”

Lastly, Robinson had his client read a prepared statement he had recently written.

Isla-Mejico began quietly as court interpreter Natalie Wight translated his words.

“It was very regrettable for me to decide to drive drunk,” Isla-Mejico began.

Harrice immediately ask that he speak up. Wight moved a courtroom microphone closer.

Isla-Mejico continued: “I am sorry for the disgrace I have caused. There is no way I can justify this act…I understand the sadness of the family…I don’t want to minimize the situation and I understand the gravity of what I have done, but I want to ask you from the bottom of my heart to forgive me.”

Robinson summed up, calling his defendant’s actions in the wake of a tragedy “unmitigated remorse.” He added that Isla-Mejico had served in the Peruvian Armed Forces and was a talented and successful artist. He then asked Judge Day to consider a shorter sentence for “owning the crime.”

“My recommendation is 7 to 15 years,” Robinson said.

Prosecution’s play

Prosecuting attorney Steve Weichman just shook his head slowly when it was his turn to ask Day drop the hammer on the accused.

After a long silence, he said, “Where to begin? It’s easier to be a prosecutor when there is a fight. But here we have the epitome of a contrite and broken heart—a defendant who has carried the weight of his stupid choice for 213 days now. The gravity of the harm he caused weighs on him in that small confined cell, every day, torturing him.

“And he’s right, beyond the judge’s sentence there is our Lord’s divine punishment waiting. I told Isla-Mejico, ‘God has already forgiven you; God has forgiven much worse.’ Society, however, is far more demanding.”

Still, prison time was warranted, in Weichman’s opinion. Isla-Mejico had priors. A DUI conviction in 2010 apparently did not get the message across. The defendant picked up a second DUI just six months before the fatal accident last June 30, when Isla-Mejico plowed into a car driven by Arndt, killing him and injuring his wife Harrice who was a passenger. Isla-Mejico’s BAC then was .175.

After half-heartedly building a case against Isla-Mejico, Weichman admitted, “Your honor, I owe it to Mr. Mejico to say that in all my career I don’t recall witnessing this much categorical and unyielding acceptance of responsibility. It’s important that Mr. Mejico gets credit for ‘manning up’ and showing there are still people out there willing to take responsibility for their criminal behavior. He has certainly earned my respect.”

Weichman continued, “I don’t envy the decision before you today. I don’t know how you judges do that. To pull a number out of the air and say this is what Melanie Harrice’s injuries and loss are worth. This is what Bob Arndt’s life is worth.”

Then it was Harrice’s turn. She whispered to Weichman from a seat in the gallery just behind the prosecutor’s table.

“Your honor, Miss Harrice would like to address the court,” Weichman said.

“By all means,” Day responded.

It was a long minute. Probably a full minute or more while Harrice composed herself. Isla-Mejico stole only a glance as he waited.

Harrice began by painting a picture of her life gone—a husband of 31 years. “My great love and wonderful companion,” she said, taken from her.

“I’m in a lonely place now, filled with so much sadness. I should hate Mr. Isla for what he did. His actions killed my husband. But this was an accident. This man did a horrible thing unintentionally.”

At some point, Wight stopped translating to Isla-Mejico, leaving the message raw and hoping emotion carried the meaning as most in the courtroom grasped for Kleenex.

Harrice identified the core of the problem to be alcoholism, which she called a disease. Isla-Mejico had admitted earlier his greatest fear was not life in prison but being released some day and falling back on booze.

“Mr. Isla has a family, and their lives do not deserve to be wrecked. This was an accident. We all make bad decisions. I ask you [Day] to act with compassion and empathy. Do we want to see one more casualty from that fateful night? Please do not send him to Rawlins. Give this man a chance. The chain of events must stop here.”

Harrice then turned to face Isla-Mejico.

“Nothing is going to bring my husband back. But if I could, I would trade you for him to do that. You need to know that,” she said, looking at the defendant. “Mr. Isla, I forgive you from the bottom of my heart. I know my husband would have forgiven you as well.”

Harrice then walked over to Isla-Mejico. She bent down and whispered something to him. She kissed his face. Isla-Mejico wept openly.

A bailiff pulled them apart.

Pronouncement of sentence

During a break, as Judge Day pondered a sentence in his chambers, Harrice hugged Isla-Mejico’s wife and kids. Meanwhile, Wight translated the widow’s entire statement to the defendant, finishing in tears as Isla-Mejico sat with his head bowed low.

Day returned to the bench with a solemn look.

“No words can adequately describe this human tragedy,” the judge began. “On display here were the deepest themes of humanity in this flawed world—genuine remorse, compassion, forgiveness.” Yet in this context this court must fashion a reasonable sentence of justice, even though there is no perfect justice in this world.”

In exchange for Isla’s confession that he was the one behind the wheel of a truck driving on the wrong side of the road without its lights on, that eventually struck head-on the vehicle Bob Arndt was driving with his wife Melanie Harrice as a passenger, the state was willing to drop four misdemeanor charges in order to keep the two egregious felonies.

Judge Timothy Day sentenced Isla-Mejico to 10-15 years on one count of Aggravated Homicide by Vehicle, 5-10 years on one count of Aggravated Assault and Battery—the sentences to run concurrently. Isla-Mejico was credited with 213 days already served in the county lockup.

He will be sent to a medium-security prison in Torrington for 3-4 months and evaluated there for redistribution to a minimum-security facility like the Honor Farm in Riverton, or maximum-security incarceration at the state penitentiary in Rawlins. Day said the decision is the State Board of Corrections to make but most likely Isla-Mejico will be eligible for minimum security confinement of some kind.

The defendant will also undergo intensive alcohol and substance abuse/addiction treatment and counseling for the entirety of his incarceration and beyond.

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