(WSB photo by Patrick Sand)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
A year and a half after 38-year-old Amy Lynn O’Brien drove her car into two students across the street from Chief Sealth International High School, an emotional hearing has ended with King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer sentencing her to one year, twice the six-month recommendation prosecutors had made, and ordering that the sentence begin immediately.
We reported last month that O’Brien pleaded guilty to hit and run and second-degree assault, the charges originally filed against her.
(WSB photo from the aftermath of the incident in November 2012)
In November 2012, she was arrested for hitting the two girls after getting upset about the 17- and 18-year-old girls’ interaction with her unleashed dog Both girls were hospitalized with serious injuries; O’Brien turned herself in the next day and spent about a week in jail before being released on personal recognizance, remaining free until now.
Both victims, Jessica and Cassandra, were present in court for the sentencing and spoke to the judge, as did the defendant.
O’Brien had been ordered not to have contact with them, but the prosecutor alleged that she had contact with one of them twice in recent weeks, including asking her to drop the charges. (O’Brien started to try to explain that while speaking to the judge, but was advised by her lawyer not to say anything.)
First, the judge asked to hear from the victims.
Cassandra spoke to the judge, saying that she doesn’t feel O’Brien understands what she did, because she asked her to drop the charges. She told the judge that O’Brien approached her twice in the past five weeks or so, that she first drove up to her near her home and tried to apologize and said she didn’t want to go to jail and “kept begging me” (to drop the charges), and then approached her as she was walking near the Southwest Precinct. Judge Shaffer asked her to explain what she recalled of the incident; she said “this dog, it was a pit bull, ran up, and then ran up again, and I told it to get off me,” and then, she said, O’Brien showed up and tried to start a fight, went away, came back with a “real big Taser, like a cop taser,” called her profane names, went away again, and then showed up in the car … “and all I remember is waking up in the hospital.” She said she had internal bleeding, a blood clot, “my ear had to get sewn back on” … and her graduation was delayed as a result. “I don’t understand … it didn’t have to be like that,” she said, tearfully. The school no longer allows anyone to walk down the small street east of Southwest Athletic Complex where it happened. “The moral of the story .. her dog came out of nowhere .. she overreacted and came to attack us three times, she was intentionally trying to hurt us, and we were trying to leave.”
Jessica then accepted the judge’s invitation to speak. She says she was injured in the legs and cannot sit for long, and said her family is having trouble with the resulting medical bills. “Before, I had 20/20 vision … now I’m kind of blind in my left eye.” She said her graduation, which would have been last year, also was delayed, and now she sometimes finds herself writing and speaking “backwards.” She said that O’Brien punched them both in the scuffle and that she wanted her to receive the longest sentence possible because “it’s not fair, it could have been solved … by talking.”
“I thought my friends died in front of my eyes,” said a third girl who was with them but did not get hit and spoke to the judge as a witness to what happened. “I have nightmares, I can’t even go on a busy road … I almost saw my friends die that day. Justice is not being served, their bills are not being paid.” The judge also heard from the Seattle Police detective who investigated the case. He says there is video showing that the girls were trying to get away from the scene of the first confrontation when O’Brien tracked them down with her car. O’Brien did not look at the girls as they spoke on the other side of the bench.
Later in the hearing, Cassandra’s mother spoke, saying her daughter “has to live with what happened to her for the rest of her life … with a brain clot in her head …” and spoke of pushing her to graduate, though she was “slowed … down tremendously” and now has to be “on Social Security for the rest of her life … This lady took the law into her own hands.”
Five people came to court to speak on O’Brien’s behalf. The first said she was advocating for O’Brien on behalf of the defendant’s 10-year-old son – her grandson – and did not want O’Brien to get a sentence that would take her away from her child. The next said he is O’Brien’s stepfather and “she’s never been in trouble … she’s very remorseful.” The third said that O’Brien is “an awesome godmother to my son” and asked for something that would allow her to continue that, such as house arrest. Fourth, a teacher at a school attended by O’Brien’s son, who talked about the caring she showed for her son, and said she believes that O’Brien “is a victim as well” who told her that the victims “beat the dog,” and that the dog was never found after the incident. The final person to speak on O’Brien’s behalf says she has known her professionally for four years and “is one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met,” speaking about the defendant’s advocacy for a child in a case handled in a social-service agency.
O’Brien herself cried while her character witnesses spoke. She said she had rescued the dog in question from a shelter. It heard the girls passing her house, laughing, she said, and went out toward them; then they asked if they could pet the dog, and, she said, she saw Cassandra hit the dog; she said, she “pushed” the girl, who then, she said, hit back, and argued back. She said she called 911 and intended to go across the street to the school to talk with security. She said she just wanted “justice for being disrespected by this little girl.” She said that her car was surrounded by teens and that she hit them at one point, and left because she was worried about her son, who would be coming home from school later.
Her lawyer was last to speak, saying “the quality of the victim never determines the rightness or wrongness of the act.” He said one victim’s social-media pages included images of questionable conduct and words of braggodocio, though he then added: “Not to say an individual of any character deserves to be hit by a car – but you are receiving two different stories.” He said his client’s reaction to the incident might be explained by manic-depressive illness and said that she has spoken repeatedly to friends and family about her regret and remorse. “Something happened at that first contact” to explain what happened and the contradictory stories, he said, though he said that did not excuse her behavior at the third point of contact. He also said that a neighbor gave her the Taser, advising her to “be careful.” He said O’Brien’s car “was not traveling 40 mph” as had been alleged, but that she had traveled northbound on 26th where she lived, then westbound onto Thistle, then southbound onto the street where the impact happened. “When she turned that last corner, it wasn’t with the intent to hunt them down and strike them again.” He called it “an isolated incident not reflected in any other conduct throughout her life.”
The prosecutor then said a neighbor had told police that “the defendant … has an anger problem” and that “several witnesses indicated that at the time of the assault, the car was traveling at a high rate of speed.”
Judge Shaffer then spoke: “It’s clear there was some kind of negative encounter between (the dog and Cassandra) … but let me point out that if the dog had been secured as the law required, there wouldn’t have been a dog out there to encounter (her).” She also noted pit bulls’ reputation and people’s fear of them.
“It really doesn’t matter what the cause of the confrontation was,” but when O’Brien called 911, “that should have been the end of this … she should have been cited for having an unleashed dog, and the girls could have been talked to about what to do when encountering a dog. Everything that happened after that was Ms. O’Brien’s choice. … A Taser is a weapon. A car is a weapon, at least two tons of metal every time you are in it, and you have a responsibility as a driver to at least not injure (anyone).”
She also noted that regardless of O’Brien’s encounter with Cassandra, that was unrelated to anything that happened to the other girl. “Absolutely inexcusable conduct which at best I could call vigilante behavior (that) has caused grievous injury to (two young girls) and there is no justification for it whatsoever. … even speaking as a fellow dog lover … In addition, I have behavior that is completely evasive after the event.” She spoke of O’Brien’s promise to police to turn herself in (before she finally did) … and said she did not “hear any acceptance of responsibility.”
But she also said that those who spoke for O’Brien “all … seemed like good people,” and that she had no reason to disbelieve that the defendant has struggled with mental health and has been a good person in the past but, “what I’m sentencing is the behavior that I have here before me, which is outrageous, unjustified, and inexcusable.” She imposed what she said was the maximum sentence she could, a 12-month sentence, twice what the prosecution requested, which she called “too lenient.” And she ordered that O’Brien, who has been free since about a week after her arrest, be taken immediately into custody to start the sentence.
O’Brien, sobbing, tried to ask the judge to delay that because of her son. The judge said sharply, “You’re not the only mom in the room,” mentioning one victim’s mother. The defense lawyer asked if O’Brien could make a phone call; the judge said she could talk to the deputies about phone availability at the jail.