Louis Prinzo, Responsible for Death of Lane Burnsed and Meredith Smith in ’12, Is Sentenced to 16 Years in Prison
FlaglerLive | November 14, 2014
Louis Prinzo IV, the 24-year-old man responsible for the death of Flagler teens Lane Burnsed and Meredith Smith and severely injuring a man and a woman in an I-95 wreck in July 2012, was sentenced to 16 years in prison and 19 years’ probation this afternoon. Eight of those years in prison are mandatory. He must also pay $8,000 in restitution, and won’t have his driver’s license returned until five years after he leaves prison.
Prinzo faced up to 22 years in prison, possibly more. If he has anyone to thank for his more lenient sentence, it’s not his family or his friends: it’s the parents of Smith and Burnsed, who displayed, if not forgiveness, a remarkable degree of forbearance as they spoke on the stand of the children they lost.
“The families of the victims in this case made an impact on me, and their ability to have compassion for the defendant. I admire that, I respect it,” said Circuit Judge Leah Case, moments before imposing sentence as Prinzo, dressed in the usual orange jump suit, looked at the judge and a courtroom nearly full of witnesses for the defense and the prosecution, looked on.
“I want to apologize to the Smith and to the Burnsed families,” Prinzo said in a brief statement he delivered from the stand. He said not a day goes by without his feeling remorse for his actions. “It’s such a horrible situation and there’s nothing I can do to fix it or make it right. I know I’m going to be sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence. I accept that, just as I accept responsibility for my actions.” By then he was crying. But he acknowledged too that despite the sentence, the victims’ families have been denied a future with their children, as he has been denied a future with his family.
The sentencing followed 90 minutes of testimony from both sides as Prinzo’s attorney tried to minimize the sentence his client was facing by having one witness after another speak to Prinzo’s character, while the victims’ families listened before Smith’s parents and Burnsed’s father addressed the court.
In early August, Prinzo was arrested again on a DUI charge, almost exactly on the anniversary of the fatal crash. His bond was revoked. That misdemeanor charge is still pending. Prinzo has been at the Volusia County jail since.
Prinzo pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI manslaughter on Sept. 19 and to a misdemeanor count of DUI. The state dropped two additional charges as part of the plea. He was defended by Daytona Beach attorney John Lance Armstrong.
Prinzo was not drunk as he drove his Mercury south on I-95 the night of July 27, 2012. He was high on pain killers including Oxycodone. At one point he veered onto the shoulder then abruptly pulled back out, causing the front of a Chevrolet Blazer to strike the Mercury in the back. Doron Nirel Lyn, the driver of the Blazer, was ejected. He survived, but is still struggling. He wasn’t in the courtroom today. “He’s constantly in pain, he’s not able to work,” Armstrong said.
Burnsed was at the wheel of a Ford F-150, with Smith and Tuesday Coulter, then 20, of Bunnell, riding along. Immediately after the Blazer’s collision with the Mercury, the F-150 collided with the Blazer, traveled across the highway and violently struck the guardrail. Smith died at the scene. Burnsed died at the hospital, moments after his father made it to his bedside.
“There’s no way to put into words how the loss of a child impacts a family,” Jamie Burnsed, Lane’s father, said to the court today. “The grief, the little things day to day that cause grief are overwhelming at times. And then, as a father, to watch my wife and three smaller children grieve and mourn, it’s a burden, it’s a burden.” His last words were appreciation “for the community.”
Kathleen Smith, Meredith’s mother, “she is my daughter.” She brought a picture of her, a large golden frame matching Meredith’s long hair, which she set in such a way that the judge could see Meredith the whole time Smith spoke. Smith described her daughter–“my shining star”–as “beautiful on the inside as well as the outside.” She described her as “a remarkable child” until the accident ended her life, a week after Meredith had driven to New York City and back, without incident: the visit to the city was part of a college trip. She visited nearby Princeton, where she wanted to go. She had the grades to do it. “But I didn’t see her get accepted to college. I didn’t see her graduate from high school. This accident took from me all the milestones,” her mother said–college, graduation, marriage, children. “She was the kind of child who was going to make a difference in the world,” Smith said. She referred to a song Bruno Mars sang last year at the Super Bowl, “Just the Way You Are.”
“When I hear this song, it always reminds me of my Meredith, maybe you’ll think of the life that was taken when you hear it.” She then spoke a few verses from the song. “However we now have to say, she was amazing just the way she was,” Smith concluded, changing the tense of the last verse: from present to past.
When the prosecution asked Smith what sort of sentence she thought the judge should impose, Smith deferred to the judge, saying she would know best. (“I was really surprised at her composure today,” her husband would say of Smith.)
She was then followed by her husband, Meredith’s father, Robert Smith.
“I appreciate Mr. Prinzo’s apology. I believe it’s sincere, and accidents happen. As far as Meredith,” Smith said, struggling, “My youngest daughter a joy to be around, we always had fun.” He had taught her gymnastics, how to run, ride a bike, play softball. “She was very athletic.” She excelled at all things she took on, with a stratospheric GPA.
When asked what sort of sentence should be imposed, Smith, showing restraint, said: “I was predisposed when I came in here to ask for the maximum. Never having attended the hearings in court to know what kind of a person Mr. Prinzo is, so I’m gong to leave it to the court to decide.” But he noted: “The pain in our hearts is going to be there forever.”
The defense put seven character witnesses on the stand, starting with people who knew Prinzo through the auto repair shop where he worked with his family for years, then in concentric circles to the people closest to Prinzo.
Each witness spoke of Prinzo in similar words: “A very kind hearted kid.” “Kind, caring and he goes out of his way for others.” “Compassionate.” One witness spoke of Prinzo’s parents and their declining health, causing Prinzo to step in and take over. That was an attempt by the defense to show Prinzo to be responsible, but also to show that his household was stressed by his parents’ health issues–and therefore replete with what the attorney described as “a mini pharmacy.”
Armstrong asked witnesses whether they knew Prinzo to have any substance abuse problems. The answer was always no. Armstrong wanted to establish a sense of distance between the medication and Prinzo himself, as witnesses spoke of Prinzo’s parents needing the medication.
Steven Weeks, a friend who traveled from Seattle to testify on Prinzo’s behalf, spoke of “the depth of his care for other people, goes out of his way to be helpful, polite. He’s a terrific person.” He also described him as “very remorseful” over the wreck’s consequences. When the attorney asked him if Prinzo felt guilty, Weeks replied: “Oh my gosh, on many occasions. It consumes him.”
Then Prinzo’s fiancee, Danielle Prinski, spoke. They’ve been involved 10 months. She soon introduced him to her daughter, with whom he bonded. “I believe that kids sense good people.” She moved into the Prinzo household. When Armstrong asked her about the prescriptions around the house, she said: “They’re readily available.” The prosecution asked her if she knew about a case of hernia Prinzo was suffering. She did, but Prinzo, she said, pushed through it to keep working, and that she never knew him to have any type of substance abuse. But the prosecution also seized on her words about medicine “being readily available.” She elaborated, and described them as being :”not where they should be”–essentially, all over the house.
The prosecution asked her whether the house was safe for her daughter.
“I wouldn’t agree that it is the safest environment for a child,” she said, “but that’s what it was and it was never in reach of my daughter.” She was referring to the prescription drugs.
Did you ever see Prinzo’s mom push medicine on him, the prosecution asked. No, Prinzki replied.
Betty Amudson, his grandmother, told the court: “I love my grandson Louis with all my heart and I ask the court for leniency,” his grandmother said.
When James Burnsed, Lane’s father, took the stand, he spoke in the present tense: “He is my son.”
Lane had been working full time at a fertilizer plant when he was killed. “He was in the process of applying to go the fire academy.”
“Why the fire academy?” the prosecution asked Burnsed.
“I don’t know, it’s not because I told him to,” Burnsed said, letting out a brief laugh: Burnsed is a captain with Flagler County Fire Rescue. His laugh was more nervous than hearty: he struggled as he spoke, choosing his words carefully and making efforts to keep his composure. “Lane was–he was larger than life,” he said. “He wasn’t a young man without his troubles, but after he died, we had so many people come to us and talk about what he had done for them.”
For two or three months prior to the accident Lane never seemed to have any money. His father was always on him about that. “He never offered an explanation, but I found out later he’d been giving more money away than he’d ever spent. He hated to see somebody in pain or in need.” By then Burnsed was shedding tears, as were the rows of his family in the audience.
Willard, the prosecutor, asked Burnsed, too, what sort of sentence he wanted imposed.
“To the court I say pretty much to pass a sentence to keep peace and to help,” he said, “like Mr. Smith said, I appreciate Mr. Prinzo’s statement. I want him to know we’re not angry at him, we’re not bitter at you, we understand that people make bad decision, we get it, and he’ll forever be in our prayers, in our family, but by the same token there has to be a sentence, there has to be a punishment, and certainly with the arrangement that’s been made the court knows best to keep peace.”
“These are probably the most difficult to sentence when somebody leaves the sentencing to the judge,” Judge Case said, noting that she was left to rely mostly on the arrest report and witness statements.
“The compassion of the victims’ families is amazing, and I have to say that Mr. Burnsed who said that he came in wanting the max and after hearing the defendant and his life was rethinking that. That often happens in a sentencing hearing like that. As I was going through the sentencing hearing and hearing the testimony you start formulating ideas,” she said. “I have to say that when I knew that he was arrested for DUI after he committed this crime my first reaction was to sentence him to the max, and probably if I hadn’t been restrained by the 22 years, a lot more.”