(1:55 pm summary: Rodney James has been sentenced to the 30 months in prison that prosecutors recommended.)
(WSB photo added 2:02 pm – Rodney James foreground left, the Wong family – from left, Jason, Wah, Salina, Jimmy – background right)
We are in King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector‘s courtroom downtown, along with Jade West Cafe proprietor Wah Wong and his son Jason Wong (plus many relatives and supporters), for the sentencing of Rodney James, the drunk driver who pleaded guilty to vehicular assault in the crash that badly hurt the Wongs two months ago. (The restaurant north of Morgan Junction has been closed ever since, its future still up in the air.) Also here: Three TV crews and a photographer from the Seattle Times (WSB partner) – close to 50 people in all in the courtroom. We are told some family members will address the judge; we’ll publish developments as they happen, with a longer story (including video and photos) later.
1:10 PM: The hearing has begun. The recommended 2 1/2 years is described as an “exceptional sentence.”
(WSB photo added 2:05 pm – Jimmy Wong at left, James’ lawyer at right)
1:16 PM: Jimmy Wong, the eldest son from California, is about to speak, after senior deputy prosecutor Amy Freedheim finished explaining how heinous the case is. “No amount of apology that he says will undo any of the damage that has been done. Mr. James’ actions have ruined my family’s fortune, source of income, my father’s passion, having his own restaurant for 20 years, serving the West Seattle community, that passion’s been taken away from him.” And he is speaking emotionally of his brother, who lost a leg. “The only thing I have left are memories of my brother … dancing at my wedding.” Then, he speaks of the customers of Jade West, who considered it home: “They don’t have a home any more.”
1:22 PM: Salina Wong, Wah’s wife and Jason’s mother, is speaking now. She too is crying. And then, she is angry, and tells James not to repeat the mistake. (added 5:15 pm – video of her testimony)
1:26 PM: Jason Wong, in a wheelchair, is speaking now. “One day I will get over this – but my family won’t. My parents have worked so hard, to see everything crumble in one day.”
1:30 PM: The lawyer for Rodney James is speaking and says he chose to accept “complete responsibility” and “wishes that day had never happened.” She spoke for about four minutes; James is speaking now, saying “I am devastated by this loss and it has affected me a great deal … if I could do this all over again, I would not have gotten in my car on that night.”
1:35 PM: Now the judge is speaking. “But for the heroic act of Jason, his father might not be here today.” She says the court has received 113 letters of support for the Wongs and Jade West. “More letters than I have ever seen, combined, in my 11th year on the bench.” She says the letters express outrage, disbelief, disappointment in the legal system. She calls James’s behavior “outrageous.” She says that James has agreed to factors that make it possible for her to sentence him to more than the standard range of 13 to 17 months. “Some of the letters have asked me to sentence you to the maximum the law permits … that would be 10 years. Some asked for more … even life. The law simply does not allow for that.” (added 2:37 – part of that statement, on video – sorry about all the typing noise)
She says she is aware that the Wong family are “incredible members of our community … Jason had agreed with a degree in aeronautical engineering and was in the process of obtaining a masters in that field … when your car (James’s car) landed in their driveway.” She says that on Wah Wong’s behalf, a former owner of the Jade West even wrote a letter, and “took great pride in seeing how it had grown in reputation throughout the West Seattle community.” She says the letters have been “overwhelming.” And, “No amount of time” will bring back the way the Wongs were .. the way the Jade West was. “Our entire community grieves for your losses, currently and prospectively,” the judge says. She also says she got letters from James’s parents expressing “deep remorse over their son’s actions.” She says toxicology reports now show James’ blood-alcohol level was .19 – higher than the originally reported .16. “The court will sentence you to the original 30 months agreed to,” she says. He also will serve 18 months probation afterward, and a $1,700-plus financial obligation even before a restitution hearing to determine what else he will be ordered to pay. If he gets a driver license in the future, he will have to have a device that will keep his car from starting unless he has less than .02 blood alcohol. She told him a few minutes earlier that he should never drive a car again, and that “if we were in Europe” he would lose his license for life.
1:56 PM: The hearing is concluded. We will see if the Wongs plan to speak to reporters outside the courtroom; we spoke with Jimmy Wong before the hearing, and he wasn’t sure if they would want to.