Jennifer J. Oskey, the Longview woman behind the wheel of an SUV that struck and killed pedestrian Julia Smith more than a year ago, pleaded guilty to third-degree assault in the case Friday and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The sentence outraged the Smith family, who said Oskey deserved to face far graver charges and far more time behind bars.
Smith, 56, died in front of her home, in the 200 block of Beacon Hill Drive, at the end of her morning run. Authorities said Oskey, a former elementary school teacher, veered her 2006 Cadillac Escalade well into a 10-foot-wide shoulder before it struck and killed Smith at about 8:10 a.m. Sept. 27, 2012.
It was a clear and bright morning, and the sun was at Oskey’s back, deputy prosecutor Amie Hunter told the court Friday. Oskey was traveling at 43 mph in a 25 mph zone when the Escalade struck Smith in the back, knocking her out of her shoes and hurling her body nearly 70 feet. Smith was pronounced dead at the scene.
Oskey said she never saw Smith until her body crashed against the Escalade’s hood. According to investigative reports released Friday, Oskey was crying, barely able to answer deputies’ questions and repeatedly uttering, “Why Jesus? Why Jesus? Why Jesus?”
Oskey. 47, admitted to taking two Oxycontin pain killers for a back injury earlier in the morning, but it took hours to get a warrant to draw Oskey’s blood, and authorities said they found no evidence that the drugs contributed to the collision. There also was no evidence that Oskey had been sending text messages or talking on her cell phone.
“The defendant was not watching where she was going and drove over the white line,” deputy prosecutor Aimie Hunter told the court.
Friday’s hearing, in Cowlitz County Superior Court, was an intense and bitter conclusion to a case that lingered for more than a year as sheriff’s investigators analyzed data and prosecutors considered whether Oskey should face criminal charges. Hunter called it “a very difficult and dividing case” that “affected the entire community” and “destroyed two families.”
Hunter said her office struck a deal for Oskey to plead guilty to third-degree assault because prosecutors were unsure whether they could convince an entire jury that the evidence justified a vehicular homicide conviction.
Friday was the first time Oskey appeared in court. The hearing, which involved the filing of charges, a plea of guilty and sentencing — all in a matter of less than two hours — was highly unusual. It usually would take weeks or months to accomplish the same disposition. Prosecutor Sue Baur explained that all of the parties involved wanted to resolve the matter as quickly as possible, given the delays in getting the case to court.
“We wanted to get it done for everybody,” Baur said. “It was bad enough that it took this long.”
Smith’s family members told the court they were still stunned by Smith’s loss and still trying to understand how she could have died this way. They lambasted prosecutors for not resolving the case sooner and seethed at Oskey, whom they insisted should face a much longer jail term.
“I’m confused. It doesn’t make sense to me that there is no explanation for what happened,” said Smith’s daughter, Shaina Smith, of Portland. “There has been no ownership of the choices or actions of Ms. Oskey.”
Oskey, who lives near the site of the crash, stood and listened, her eyes bloodshot and damp, as the Smith family spoke. She then read a letter that, according to her attorney, Jim Morgan, she had wanted to send to the Smith family shortly after her crash. Morgan said he had advised against contacting the family until the case was resolved.
“I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for what happened and how, from the moment it happened, I have wished so badly to take her place and bring her back to you,” Oskey said. “There will never be a day that I don’t think of her and there will never be a day that I don’t think of all of you. I will carry that day with me for the rest of my life. I never will forget her.”
Oskey, a mother of a two teenagers, including an autistic son, was described in letters to the court as a devout Christian who has participated in mission trips to Mexico. Pastors at Longview’s Calvary Community Church, where Oskey attends services, as well as her husband, Rob Oskey, wrote letters urging Judge Gary Bashor to give Oskey community service instead of jail time.
But Bashor said forgoing jail “would trivialize what’s happened.” His sentence of 30 days in jail was the least he could give for a third-degree assault conviction. (The most is three months.)
Smith’s surviving family members scoffed at the idea that Oskey’s faith and community service should earn her what they considered preferential treatment. Instead they suggested that Oskey, who was booked into the jail immediately following the hearing, should spend the holidays locked away from her family. That, they said, would give her a taste of their pain. They sobbed as they described being prescribed antidepressants and sent to counseling, suffering a new and unfamiliar emotional distance with their spouses, fear of going for a run, Sunday family dinners that are no more and holiday gatherings where no one can seem to cope.
“We are not a happy family now,” said Smith’s husband of 32 years, Huffman Smith.
He said it has been agony to come home to an empty house. “I’d open the garage door and see Judy’s car in the garage and my heart would pick up.” Then, he said, “I would break down and start sobbing. That happened every time I opened the garage door for four months.”
Smith’s husband also said he has taken down his wife’s pictures, hidden briefly from his young granddaughter so she doesn’t see him cry, and returned early from a ski vacation simply because he could not bear the absence of his wife. Eventually, he said, he sold the Beacon Hill home.
“I couldn’t stay in my house,” he said, adding that it was too much to bear “seeing Jennifer Oskey and her family driving by as though she had done nothing wrong, as though she was a victim of us and not the other way around.”
Smith, who often went by Judy and worked for years in a local dental office, was described Friday as warm, loving, vibrant and fun. She embraced everyone around her, close family and strangers alike, her family members said.
“She was loved in the family and she empowered people to go out and be loved in the world,” said one of Smith’s sisters-in-law, Stephanie Smith of San Francisco. “There’s so much pain over this that I know there may be a feeling that our family is a vengeful family. We are not by nature, but we are very hurt.”
“Everyone here is damaged and is in pain,” she continued. “The long uncertainty about justice being done has made it worse, just made it worse.”