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Continued: Tearful drunk driver apologizes

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 16, 2010 - 1:56 PM

Connie Ann Stroud chose not to wait.

Hennepin County courtroom procedure normally dictates that after Stroud pleaded guilty Thursday to killing a 6-month-old fetus in a drunken-driving crash last December, she would wait until her sentencing some weeks later before having a chance to speak to those affected by her actions.

Instead, her lawyer, eyes tearing up, told the judge that Stroud wanted to apologize. Yia Vang and husband Tao Thao, would-be parents of a boy they named Jaylee Chang Vang, were seated in the front row of the courtroom.

With the judge's approval, Stroud turned and faced them.

"I can't put into words how sorry I am," said Stroud, her face red from crying. "I will spend my life thinking about what I did. ... I feel your pain. I am so sorry. I hope some day you can find it in your heart to forgive me."

Vang and Thao both sobbed as she spoke.

In a fitted black T-shirt, dress pants and pearls, Stroud walked slowly toward the couple, her arms folded across her chest and her face pained.

Neither Vang nor Thao looked up before she went back to the defense table, sat down, and signed guilty pleas to three counts of criminal vehicular homicide and three counts of criminal vehicular operation.

Stroud's blood-alcohol level an hour after the Dec. 5 crash was 0.17 percent, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Stroud's pleas averted a trial set to begin Monday. Among the issues defense lawyer Terry Duggins had hoped to raise was whether the fetus was viable at the time of the crash and whether the family was wearing seat belts.

In a motion, he argued that to be viable, the fetus must be able to survive on its own. "A 24-week-old fetus cannot breathe or survive on its own without extensive assistance from medical technology," one motion said.

Attached to the motion were records from North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale indicating that doctors removed a "nonviable fetus" from Vang.

Stroud's Toyota Tundra was going the wrong way on an Interstate 94 off-ramp at 49th Avenue N. about 11:45 p.m. when she ran into a van driven by a pregnant Vang and carrying five of the couple's children. Interior wreckage tore through Vang's placenta, cutting off oxygen to the womb.

Stroud was charged in connection with the death and injuries to 10-year-old Alex Vang, who suffered a broken nose and needed plastic surgery, according to court testimony. The rest of the family suffered minor injuries.

After the plea, a victim's advocate for the prosecutor led the family out a side door to avoid reporters.

In court, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney John Halla elicited from Stroud the events leading up to the crash.

Stroud said she was drinking alone at Tryg's, near Lake Calhoun, when an old friend spotted her and joined her. They stayed for about four hours. Stroud said she thinks she had four glasses of wine but added, "I'm not positive."

She said she meant to drive home on Hwy. 100, but went north instead of south and got lost. "I remember seeing Duluth signs so I turned around and went back," she said.

At the crash scene, Halla said, "You were reported to have said, 'I'm drunk; I'm sorry.'"

Stroud said, "I do remember that."

Halla said Stroud, a surgical technician at United Hospital, had tossed a fast-food bag with wrappers on the floor near the truck's accelerator. Stroud said she didn't recall stopping for the burger and fries.

She will be sentenced Sept. 2. Halla will ask Judge Steven Lange to give her nearly five years in prison and probation with the possibility of serving another year if she violates conditions of her release. Duggins will ask for probation.

Diane Homa, victim's advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the plea averts what could have been a difficult trial for the family given the potential seat belt and fetus viability issues.

Homa said she believes the apology was heartfelt but called for a longer sentence. "It really shows how everybody suffers with drunk driving," she said.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

  • about this series

  • In Minnesota, drunken drivers who kill someone with their car sometimes get less time behind bars than nonviolent offenders. Public safety advocates say it's part of a culture of forgiveness surrounding drunken driving, a social problem that killed 893 people on Minnesota roads in the past five years. Read the Star Tribune's in-depth look at the scourge of drunken driving, the victims it claims and the public safety questions it raises.
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  • Connie Ann Stroud

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