In the midst of a second gut-wrenching day during Anthony
McDowell’s sentencing hearing for vehicular manslaughter, Scott
Kinkel and the man held responsible for his daughter’s death,
By Lori Stuenkel
Gilroy – In the midst of a second gut-wrenching day during Anthony McDowell’s sentencing hearing for vehicular manslaughter, Scott Kinkel and the man held responsible for his daughter’s death, embraced.
That marked the most powerful twist in an almost-bizarre day in court as emotions from the parade of speakers ranged from anger to tears. Thirteen people spoke – including two who were present the night Erin Kinkel died after being thrown from the bed of McDowell’s pick-up truck on a winding hillside road in Gilroy. The hearing lasted seven hours, and at the end Judge Susan Bernardini said she would hand down her sentence at 10am today.
Even McDowell, who has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, proposed jail time for himself during an eloquent and revealing 45-minute speech during which he broke down repeatedly.
“I honestly don’t know what my choice (for punishment) would be. I have to admit I’m leaning toward the harshest possible punishment because I feel that could somehow, some way, start the healing process,” he said. “My punishment does not start when you give it to me. My punishment started that night when I knelt next to Erin. My punishment started that instant and my punishment will never end.”
Others, including Deputy District Attorney Amir Alem and Erin Kinkel’s mother, also advocated sending McDowell to prison.
When McDowell addressed the court, he reflected on the night of the crash, the pain and guilt he has felt for the past year, and spoke repeatedly the words the Kinkels say they longed to hear: “I’m sorry.”
As he told his story, his family members, in addition to friends, and supporters of the Kinkel family wept openly.
“To Mr. and Mrs. Kinkel, family and friends: It’s been a long time, but I am sorry. I am sorry for your loss and I am sorry for what happened that night,” McDowell began. “I made a decision that night to leave that house, to start my vehicle with two innocent lives in my hands. To stop yet again and yet again start my vehicle with two innocent lives (in the bed.)”
McDowell said he suffers nightmares and feels so guilty about his role in the crash that he is “disgusted” and hates what he sees when he looks in the mirror each morning. He told Erin Kinkels parents that he and each of the teenagers present during the crash did all they could to revive Erin. McDowell said he knelt next to the girl until paramedics arrived.
“I thought she was still breathing, but unfortunately, the blood was clotting in her mouth,” he said. “So with my own two hands, I tried to keep her breathing. That is a vision I can never get rid of. A young girl’s blood is on my hands for the rest of my life.”
He claimed, as did several of the speakers who followed, that he did, in fact, try to apologize to the Kinkels the day after the crash. The Kinkels have said they received no apology until late last month.
When McDowell concluded, Judge Bernardini called a 10-minute recess. McDowell remained on the stand a few moments to regain his composure, then approached the Kinkels, who were still in their seats in the front row. McDowell and Scott Kinkel shared a long embrace, during which Scott spoke to the teen and patted his back.
“He went to shake my hand, and I hugged him because I needed to,” Scott Kinkel said later during a recess at Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Martin Tuesday. “I told him I know he would never hurt my daughter on purpose.”
McDowell, a 19-year-old Morgan Hill resident, was driving with one friend in the cab of the truck and two others, including Erin Kinkel, unrestrained in the bed. On a curve in the road, he veered onto the dirt shoulder and up an embankment, striking a tree. Kinkel was ejected onto the paved road and was declared dead en route to the hospital.
McDowell’s statement came in the middle of a day in which the rift between the two sides of the courtroom came down to shouts from McDowell’s grandfather, W.M. McDowell.
“(McDowell has been) the love of my life for so many years, and I heard you people yesterday say so many things that aren’t true about my grandson,” he said, adding that he became bitter toward the Kinkels when McDowell was asked not to attend Erin Kinkel’s funeral.
Earlier in the morning, Deputy DA Alem called his final two speakers and played a 10-minute slide presentation. About 20 people who knew Erin Kinkel spoke on Monday. Jason Cole, her former boyfriend, admonished McDowell for being irresponsible the night of the crash, and said he “only showed remorse when he knew there was no other way out, and we all see that.”
Miki Kinkel talked about her daughter for more than an hour. She began by reading a few thoughts from her youngest daughter Catherine, 5. Kinkel told of the joys of her oldest daughters’ life, from her friends and family to the teddy bears, salt-water taffy, and poems that still fill her room.
Tuesday afternoon, two of the people who survived the crash paid their respects to the Kinkels and defended McDowell.
Cassandra Lopez was riding next to Erin Kinkel in the bed of the truck, as they looked at the stars. Each night, she says, she sees the image of Kinkel lying in the street.
“When it happened, I was frozen,” Lopez said, crying. “Nobody could do anything but Tony – the strongest one of all. He’s been the strongest one since then.”
Ismael Marisclan was riding next to McDowell in the cab of the truck and frantically searched for cell phone reception to call 911 once he saw Kinkel injured.
“Do you know how it feels to never give her your last respects? Do you know how it feels to be on your knees on a dark, windy road, begging, praying because you wish it was yourself instead of her?” he said. “If you want to hate us, go ahead. We hate ourselves.”
Several people who are acquainted with McDowell through the Future Farmers of America said he excelled in the program, particularly in leadership roles.
Parent President of the Live Oak FFA chapter Kris Friebel called McDowell helpful, happy, and always ready to volunteer.
“He’s one of those kids that just is there and will always be there if you need them,” Friebel said.
McDowell’s mother, Cheryl, was the last to speak on his behalf. She said she feels like she lost her son the night of the crash because he is a different person.
“Ultimately, I’m sorry, but we’re stuck here and we’re here every day. We’re here with a reminder …” she said. “The ultimate thing we all have to do here is we all have to forgive.”