18-Month Term In Crash That Killed Boy, 11; Previously Arrested Drunk Driver Crossed Center Line, Hit 3 Cars On Easter Sunday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 1998 ; Page B03
Christopher Jonathan stood before a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge yesterday and talked of his 11-year-old son, Niranjen, a fifth-grader with straight A's and ambitions of becoming a neurosurgeon and professional basketball player.
Then he recalled Easter Sunday. That was the night Leonilo Urbano Figueroa, a restaurant cook who had been arrested on drunken-driving charges three weeks earlier, crossed the center line on Darnestown Road, hit two cars and slammed into the minivan in which Niranjen was riding.
"My son's blood was flowing into the darkness," Jonathan told the judge. "Can you imagine the horror of watching your son drift away?"
Judge Nelson W. Rupp Jr., who has a young boy of his own, said he could not. He sentenced Figueroa to four years in jail, suspending all but 18 months. With good behavior and credit for time served, Figueroa could be released in five months, a jail spokesman said. A Jonathan family friend criticized the sentence as surprisingly light.
Rupp also gave Figueroa, 32, five years of supervised probation and ordered him to pay Niranjen's parents $15,800 in restitution. Figueroa must attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, get alcohol-abuse treatment and install a device in his car that will not let him drive if he has been drinking. Also, he must serve 1,000 hours of community service.
Almost four hours after the collision on April 12, Figueroa's blood alcohol content measured 0.22 -- more than twice the state's legal limit. His Toyota 4Runner hit three cars that night, injuring 12 people and spreading wreckage almost a mile.
In that wreckage, police found Figueroa's temporary license -- his permanent driver's license had been confiscated during a previous arrest -- and an empty beer carton. Figueroa pleaded guilty to five charges, including manslaughter and failing to stop after an accident.
Rupp said Niranjen's death "dramatically highlights" the courts' "real weakness" in dealing with drunk drivers. Figueroa, the judge said, should not have been released without being ordered to undergo alcohol-abuse treatment that might have prevented Niranjen's death. "It makes absolutely no sense that immediate treatment was not imposed," Rupp said.
Defense attorney Leonard R. Stamm said Figueroa worked as a cook at the Cheesecake Factory and the Silver Diner on Rockville Pike to send money to his parents, wife and three children in Mexico. He is an alcoholic who has never gotten help, Stamm said.
Niranjen, known to friends as Alvin, was described in court as precocious and religiously devout. His family brought a gold-framed school photograph with them, passing it to the judge at the start of the sentencing hearing.
Figueroa offered an apology, his head bowed and his hands folded.
"I'm very sorry for him and his family and all other people affected by what I did," Figueroa, of Wheaton, told the judge through an interpreter. "I'm ready to accept whatever your honor thinks is fair."
The Jonathans departed immediately after the sentencing, leaving friends to speak for them. Alan Bowser, a lawyer who works with Niranjen's father at the World Bank, said he was surprised and saddened by the sentence. Eighteen months, he said, is meager justice considering Figueroa faced up to 10 years in prison.
"I expected something much more severe," Bowser said.
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