A Mississippi man was sentenced to jail Monday for using a cell phone while driving and causing the death of a Lake Geneva woman in an August 2017 Columbia County crash.
Patrick Craft, 41, of Collins, Mississippi, was sentenced to 60 days in jail with Huber work release privileges and four years of probation on a charge of vehicular homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle.
He pleaded no contest Oct. 30 to being responsible for the death of Christine Novak, 40, of Lake Geneva.
“I am extremely sorry to the Novak family for their loss,” Craft said. “I’m not running. I’m not here to point fingers. If I could take that day back, I would.”
The court ruled Craft is allowed to serve jail time in Covington County, Mississippi, and must pay $539 in restitution for the victim’s family. As part of probationary conditions, Craft is prohibited from any cell phone use — even hands free — while driving in the future.
Assistant District Attorney Mary Ellen Karst said on Aug. 11, 2017, Craft was driving a semi-trailer carrying 18,000 pounds of potatoes and vegetables.
Karst said Craft did not heed a warning sign nor a stop sign and was traveling up to 58 mph at the moment of impact.
She said Craft “blew through the stop sign” at the intersection of Highway E and Highway 73, killing Novak and injuring nearly all of her seven children inside her vehicle.
“It was like a huge bullet coming down the road,” Karst said. “They each suffered in those moments, in addition to the ultimate loss of their mother.”
Karst said phone records showed Craft answered an incoming call and sent a text message mere minutes before the fatal crash occurred. She added that dash cam footage from the crash sounded as if Craft was speaking to someone on the phone.
“People still think, ‘I can just send this one message,’” Karst said, speaking to a larger societal issue of distracted driving. “There are really tragic consequences.”
She implored the court to consider the public safety aspect of the case in hopes of deterring other people from using cell phones or allowing other dangerous distractions while driving.
Karst credited the defendant for his cooperation throughout the case and added Novak’s family members “extended an immense amount of compassion and grace” toward Craft.
But Karst said she was concerned that Craft’s recollection of the events of Aug. 11, 2017, changed in different conversations with authorities and attorneys.
Defense attorney Mark David Lawton said his client’s memory from the incident was fallible at times due to a head injury Craft suffered in the crash. Lawton also pointed to Craft’s lack of any prior criminal record and steady work history as evidence of a hard-working family man whose family depends on him to earn money.
Lawton also said as convicted felon, Craft will lose certain civil rights for life.
“The guilt he’s lived with will be with him the rest of his life,” Lawton said.
Karst asked the court to sentence Craft to one year in jail and two years of probation. Lawton in turn requested a punishment of 30 to 60 days in jail and a period of probation.
Craft said never in his wildest dreams did he imagine he would have been responsible for the death of another human being.
Judge Todd Hepler read portions of several impact statements in court before making a ruling.
In various letters Hepler read aloud, Novak’s family members said they forgave Craft for his actions and hoped he would learn from the punishments.
“We forgive you, Patrick,” one letter said.
Novak’s husband wrote in a letter that his wife had once befriended a deeply reclusive man who felt remorseful for killing someone by negligent operation of a vehicle. The husband wrote that it was ironic to be on the other end of that tragedy and said he forgave Craft, too.
Hepler said the husband’s letter was one of the most meaningful statements he’s ever seen in court.
“She would have wanted us to forgive,” the letter read.