Moved by what he learned about a University of Minnesota senior killed in a hit-and-run, a judge Monday sentenced the driver to 40 years in prison, more than what prosecutors had sought.
Hennepin County District Judge Daniel Mabley said he was touched by a book about Ben Van Handel's life that his friends and relatives put together. The judge also emphasized how the case wasn't just about the loss of a life, but the loss of such an exceptional individual.
Van Handel's family and friends filled the courtroom as Timothy Bakdash, 30, of Roseville was sentenced for driving into a group of U students in a drunken act of rage a year ago, killing Van Handel and injuring two others. Some of Van Handel's friends and relatives wore blue T-shirts with the letter "B" on the front and the dates of Ben's birth and death on the back.
"One year ago today, on April 16, 2011, we were at Hennepin County Medical Center, where we were told about Ben's grim condition," Ben's mother, Ann, said during her victim impact statement as she described Ben's final days. "He was in a medically induced coma."
Van Handel, 23, from Appleton, Wis., died from brain injuries six days after being hit. Students Sarah Bagley and Katelynn Hanson, who were walking nearby, were seriously hurt. Van Handel was to have graduated with an economics degree last spring and had applied for jobs and internships in the Twin Cities.
Van Handel's only sibling, Rachel, said she'll graduate from college this spring, something her brother never had a chance to do.
"When I graduate in May and walk across the stage, I'm going to be walking for my brother," she said through tears after the sentencing.
Last month, a jury found Bakdash guilty of second-degree murder and eight other felonies for the April 15 wrong-way hit-and-run after a night of drinking at the Library Bar in Dinkytown.
The jury cleared him of first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder, but he was convicted of second-degree attempted murder for hitting Bagley and Hanson. He was also convicted of felony murder, assault, criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation.
Bakdash, who testified in his defense at trial, told jurors that he was drunk and high. He said he was trying to scare a man he believed had taunted him in a parking lot earlier when he drove up onto a curb, intending to clip the man's ankle. Instead, he testified, he saw a woman bounce off his windshield and panicked, telling the court that he didn't realize that he had hit Van Handel or the other students.
On Monday, the prosecution spoke of the life-altering consequences of Bakdash's actions. "He acted with a complete disregard for human life," said Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Christina Warren. "He actively concealed and destroyed evidence and didn't accept responsibility."
After Van Handel's family members spoke, Bakdash apologized, glancing back at Ben's family. He said that at times he was so upset by what he had done that he wanted to kill himself.
But the apology rang hollow for Ben's family. "He might be feeling sorry now that he got caught," said Ben's father, Steve Van Handel. After the sentencing, he said that Bakdash had given plenty of excuses but still had not accepted full responsibility for the pain he caused. "I think it will come, it will sink in, but right now it's not quite there."
Prosecutors asked Mabley to sentence Bakdash to 38 1/2 years, but Mabley bumped it to 40. Bakdash will serve 14 1/2 years concurrently for injuring Bagley and Hanson and 25 1/2 years for Van Handel's death. He could be eligible for parole in about 27 years, when he's 57.
Asked if justice was served, Ann Van Handel hesitated before saying yes. "Because I feel like he won't have the things that Ben won't have," she said. "He didn't get a chance to graduate, to meet his wife, have kids -- a future."
Rachel, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said her heart is broken.
"I'll never have a sibling again. I've had to watch my parents say goodbye to their son, and that's something I'd never wish on anyone," she said while delivering her victim impact statement in the courtroom.
Stephanie Audette is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.