Family members of a Lawrence woman killed in a high-speed police chase are upset with a plea agreement reached Monday that could allow suspect Nam Ouk Cho to spend less time in prison.
"All today accomplished was Cho's admission to being a murderer," said Stephanie Vellucci, daughter of victim Judith Vellucci. "Although this will make his life difficult, it is still not enough."
Cho, 21, Lee's Summit, Mo., pleaded guilty Monday in Douglas County District Court to all charges against him related to the August 2003 chase. Vellucci, 56, was driving home from picking up a prescription for her dog when Cho's customized street racer struck her car at 31st Street and Nieder Road.
Police testified Cho later said he was driving recklessly because he thought police were chasing him from a Kansas City-area drug deal.
Cho on Monday pleaded guilty to all four charges against him: second-degree murder and one count each of possession of methamphetamine, marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
In exchange for the plea, Dist. Atty. Charles Branson's office agreed to recommend that Cho be given a lighter sentence than the one spelled out under sentencing guidelines.
When Cho is sentenced March 22, Branson's office will recommend Cho be given 90 months, or 7 1/2 years, in prison, provided that a criminal history investigation shows that Cho has no more than one felony in his background.
Branson said he accepted the plea because of the risk jurors would find Cho guilty of lesser charges at trial. In several recent traffic fatalities in Douglas County, jurors or judges have found drivers not guilty of felonies and instead have found them guilty of misdemeanor vehicular homicide.
It's tough to prove the higher charge, prosecutors say, because to find a driver is "reckless," jurors must find the driver knew there was an immediate danger to another person and disregarded it.
"We felt it was more appropriate to have a conviction as charged and have the higher sentence we agreed to than it was to run the risk of the jury coming back with the lesser charge," Branson said.
Because Cho's criminal-history score hasn't yet been determined, it's not known what sentence Cho would have faced had he not been allowed to plead. But under sentencing guidelines someone with one felony in his past normally would face 146 months, or about 12 years, for second-degree murder. Someone with no criminal record would face 117 months.
Even though prosecutors want a departure, Judge Robert Fairchild doesn't have to grant one. Vellucci's family members will have a chance to speak in court before sentencing.
"A complete stranger has taken her from us, and we will never 'be OK' with it," Stephanie Vellucci said. "I miss her. It never gets easier. Regardless of this outcome she is not coming back, and that is unfortunate for anyone who was lucky enough to have known her."