Kellie Stein doesn't have a life anymore; she says she just exists.
Kristin Kealy, a single mother who had a clean driving and criminal record, drove drunk on a Coon Rapids road at a speed police say reached 90 miles per hour last August, and rear-ended Stein's Pontiac Firebird as it slowly crept into what Stein believed was an empty traffic lane.
Paralyzed from the neck down, Stein left the hospital Thursday for the first extended trip since the accident to tell an Anoka County judge how Kealy shattered her happy life.
Kealy, 25, who received a year in jail, said nothing to Stein during the hearing. Judge James Cunningham Jr. told Kealy he's not one to beat up on people, but said she received a tremendous break on her sentence.
"If I had more latitude, I would have sentenced you to jail for a lot longer," he said.
Stein, 32, was wheeled into the courtroom by her longtime boyfriend, who kneeled beside her and held an impact statement that Stein had dictated to a hospital volunteer.
Her first words barely audible, Stein talked about the events of Aug. 10, when Kealy made the reckless decision that changed Stein's life forever. Kealy had been drinking with friends at Biff's bar in Spring Lake Park and was driving on Coon Rapids Boulevard about 1:30 a.m. when her vehicle smashed into Stein's. Her blood alcohol level was 0.24, three times the legal driving limit. She initially told police she wasn't driving, according to a court document.
Stein's voice grew stronger as she told Cunningham about the activities she can no longer do: fly fishing, gardening, painting, landscape designing. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and criminal justice and had plans to continue her studies.
Now, she considers her life over.
"I just lie in a hospital watching television," she said. "I consider myself an artist, but I can't even write my own name."
She described herself as someone who used to be a beautiful girl and good athlete, hoping one day to earn a black belt in karate or run a marathon. She takes 40 pills a day, and her health slowly deteriorates, she said.
"I've been drunk before, but I knew I was drunk and didn't drive," she said. "How could she not know she wasn't able to drive? She needs to see prison time."
She told Cunningham that she wished she were Kealy because "I would have a life after I served my jail time."
Kealy's attorney, Jan Mansell, said that it was a tragic accident, but that Kealy was remorseful and has her whole life ahead of her. Kealy wanted to write Stein a letter of apology right after the accident but didn't think it would be appropriate, Mansell said.
The attorney asked Cunningham for a six-month sentence.
"Everybody will be forever impacted by this and she wants to be accountable," Mansell said of Kealy. "It was an alcohol-impaired decision. It can happen to anybody, even if it is the first time."
Kealy, of Fridley, pleaded guilty early this year to felony criminal vehicular operation resulting in great bodily harm. The state sentencing guideline recommends a one-year sentence because of Kealy's clean criminal history, but assistant county attorney Wade Kish said afterward that he wished the law could be changed to make the guidelines more flexible in cases like this.
"When you're talking about great bodily harm, there can be a wide range of the actual level of harm inflicted on the person," he said.
Kealy declined to comment after the hearing.
Although it was difficult for Stein to sit up in her wheelchair for more than 20 minutes, she wanted to share more thoughts. She talked about the embarrassment of being a college-educated woman who will rely on welfare for the rest of her life. She plans to make a documentary that she hopes will be watched by teenage drivers or convicted drunken drivers.
Her frustration eventually boiled over to Kealy, who she said should have been "woman enough to stand up in court and say something about the accident."
Still, Stein said, the journey to court Thursday was worth it.
"I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465