One by one, eyes moist with tears and voices choked with grief, family members of Sheila Pelton and Jocelyn B. Elberson stepped to the lectern in a hushed courtroom and addressed by name the drunken driver who was sentenced Thursday for killing the two women last November.
They described the 25-year-old Elberson as a lively friend and devoted aunt who survived heart surgery only to die while walking her puppy on a bike path. They recalled the pain of the 81-year-old Pelton dying on a beautiful fall day in front of her husband of five decades.
And they berated David A. Smith of Niagara Falls for making the choice to drink and operate his motorcycle that day, capping a record of six arrests for driving while intoxicated in three states over the last 15 years.
“I have a heart of disgust toward David Smith and the decision he made to drink and then drive. And this decision was not his first,” said Natalie Pelton, Sheila Pelton’s granddaughter.
Smith didn’t react, or face the victims’ relatives, as they criticized the 53-year-old Smith for acting selfishly and without thinking of the consequences of his drinking and driving.
But shortly before he was sentenced to four to 12 years in state prison, Smith read an apology to the Pelton and Elberson families and accepted full responsibility for the deaths of the two women.
“I know what a terrible ordeal this has been for these families,” Smith said. “I wish I could turn the clock back, but I can’t.”
State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang could have sentenced Smith to a minimum of one to three years or a maximum of five to 15 years in prison following his Jan. 10 guilty plea to felony first-degree vehicular manslaughter, second-degree vehicular assault and DWI.
Smith admitted he was riding his motorcycle drunk on Nov. 11, when he took a curve on Tonawanda Creek Road at a high rate of speed, lost control, went off the road and plowed into a group of pedestrians.
Elberson, a prep cook at Bonefish Grill in the Boulevard Mall, and Pelton, a grandmother, were killed and Pelton’s husband, Foster, 79, was badly injured.
Foster Pelton, who uses a wheelchair as he recovers from the accident, was among the large crowd that attended the sentencing.
Lisa Pelton, Sheila and Foster’s daughter-in-law, said it’s clear Smith hasn’t learned from his previous DWIs, but she still has forgiven him.
“I want David to find forgiveness in the Lord. That’s my prayer,” Lisa Pelton said softly.
Charles and Kathleen Elberson, Jocelyn’s parents, talked about their daughter’s outgoing personality, the hundreds of people who paid their respects at her calling hours, and the struggle she faced to recover from heart surgery just eight months before she was struck and killed.
Kathleen, who was out walking with Jocelyn that afternoon, said she is haunted by the image of her daughter’s lifeless body.
Charles Elberson lamented that he won’t be able to walk Jocelyn down the aisle at her wedding, dance with her at the reception or watch her raise children of her own. He said he tried to forgive Smith but he can’t, and he never will.
“I will go to my grave despising your poor decisions and your actions that took one of my joys in life from me, and my family, forever,” he said.
Smith’s record of drunken driving includes four DWI arrests in New York, one in Ohio and one in Florida, said prosecutor Kelley A. Omel, who heads the Vehicular Crimes Bureau of the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.
Attorney Joel L. Daniels, who represented Smith with Jim Faso, described his client as a dedicated former Dunlop employee, a devoted father to his two children and an experienced motorcyclist who never had an accident until the Nov. 11 crash.
Daniels conceded Smith had been drinking but said, “This was a heartbreaking accident. So sad – so tragic.”
In addition to the prison sentence, Wolfgang revoked Smith’s driver’s license and ordered him to serve five years of post-release probation. Outside court, Charles Elberson expressed dismay at the length of the sentence.
“New York State doesn’t hand out the best sentences for this kind of crime,” he said. “Something’s got to change. He didn’t learn.”
The Pelton and Elberson families have filed notice of their intent to sue the Town of Amherst, arguing the town failed to properly design and protect residents along that stretch of the bike path, where there is no barrier separating pedestrians from street traffic.