Driver gets 90 days for fatal distracted driving crash: Victim's family says it's too little
ST. PAUL—Destiny Xiong reached down for her cellphone just before smashing into a line of cars backed up on Interstate 35W in New Brighton almost two years ago.
The collision left a St. Paul woman dead, a toddler without her mom, a man without his fiancee, and a family seared by grief.
It's a story a Ramsey County district judge ordered Xiong to continue telling at the Hudson, Wis., woman's sentencing hearing Tuesday. April 3, on one count of misdemeanor-level careless driving.
The 36-year-old previously faced charges of criminal vehicular homicide and operation for her driving conduct in early May 2016. But a jury found her not guilty of the charges following a trial in February.
The crash killed Brea Miller, 31, and seriously injured her fiance, Michael Bain, 37.
Angry and heartbroken over the verdict and the loss of Miller, her family on Tuesday pleaded with Judge David Higgs to give Xiong the maximum sentence allowed by law for the careless driving count, a conviction they said fell short of justice for Miller's death.
Higgs granted their request, sentencing Xiong, a mother of three, to 90 days in jail for the crime despite her request for leniency. Higgs then went a step further.
"I want you to share your story," Higgs ordered Xiong. "Not the story of looking down and grabbing your phone ... but (the story of the) pain and agony ... that distracted driving can cause."
He wasn't specific about how Xiong has to comply with that portion of her sentence, but suggested that it could include writing a letter to the editor in a local newspaper.
Miller's family and fiance cried through the hearing. Three of her relatives also spoke. They described Miller as an exceptional mother to her and Bain's now-4-year-old daughter, Izzy.
"Her horrible mistake has changed many lives forever," Miller's mother, Tracy Miller, said of Xiong. "Her kids get to see her everyday ... while my granddaughter only gets to know what her mom look(ed) like (from pictures)."
"I wanted Destiny to at least feel some sort of devastation," she continued, speaking of her hope that Xiong would be convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and operation at trial. "But again, she got to walk away unharmed."
Miller's stepfather told Higgs that he's been relentless in his pursuit of local lawmakers to push for legislation that will prevent more injuries and deaths from distracted driving.
"Distracted driving is an epidemic in this state," Bob Gunter said. "We should not be allowed to use phones in the car. Period."
He encouraged drivers to make use of cellular apps that block receipt of text messages or phone calls while driving, decreasing the temptation drivers feel to use their phones while behind the wheel.
Xiong admitted to authorities after the crash that she had looked at a short text message from one of her children on her phone — the message read "Okay" — when she accidentally dropped it.
She had just retrieved it and was attempting to place it on her dash when she looked up and found herself crashing into Miller and Bain's vehicle in front of her on I-35W just north of County Road D.
The impact caused a four-car pileup on the interstate.
At trial, prosecutors contended Xiong's conduct constituted gross negligence, arguing she had been speeding and blew past several signs warning of upcoming construction when the crash took place.
Her attorney, Earl Gray, argued that the state's crash reconstruction expert made critical errors in estimating how fast Xiong was going that day and said none of the signs she drove past told drivers to slow down.
Her conduct, he told the jury, was a careless mistake that any number of drivers are guilty of making on a regular basis.
Xiong sobbed as she addressed Miller's loved ones Tuesday. She specifically called out Miller's daughter, fiance and immediate family.
"I will always be reminded of what I have taken away from you ... your mother," she said to Izzy, who was not at the hearing. "You are not deserving of such loss and pain."
"My heart pains knowing the love of your life is gone because of my actions," she said to Michael Baine, who wiped away tears but didn't speak at the hearing.
"I am sorry that the loss of your daughter ... your sister ... is because I failed to be a responsible driver," she continued. "I am not worthy of your forgiveness ... but (know) that in this world you will have a place in my heart as I will never forget the pain that I've caused."
Xiong, a mother of three, works for the city of Minneapolis. She has no other criminal convictions on her record.
The state offers a variety of tips to prevent distracted driving, including turning off cellphones and designating a passenger to serve as the vehicle's navigator.