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Driver in Fatal Crash Sentenced as Victim's Family Urges Leniency

May 17, 2016


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: David Keightly, 215.348.6342, dakeightly@buckscounty.org


A Philadelphia man was sentenced today to serve two to 23 months in the Bucks County Correctional Facility for his role in a crash that killed a 79-year-old man in Milford Township last summer.

Kent Hartley, 32, pleaded no contest to homicide by vehicle, simple assault and reckless endangerment in the July 31 accident that killed Joseph DeChristopher and injured three others. Hartley was neither impaired by alcohol or drugs nor speeding at the time, but said he was blinded by the early-morning sun when he drove through a red light on Route 663 at Allentown Road.

His eastbound vehicle struck the rear of a pickup truck passing through the intersection on Allentown Road, spinning the truck into a car carrying DeChristopher and his grandson, David Stewart, 37, who was injured. The accident happened at 6:45 a.m., as DeChristopher and Stewart were headed out to an auto show and Hartley was on his way to breakfast.

Hartley said that when he encountered the glare, he had asked his girlfriend to hand him his sunglasses, but that she was still looking for them when the crash occurred. He acknowledged that he should have pulled over until he could see clearly.

In an unusual and emotional court hearing, Hartley was publicly forgiven by members of the victim’s family, several of whom looked on from the rear of the courtroom. DeChristopher’s daughter and grandson asked Bucks County Judge Wallace H. Bateman Jr. not to incarcerate Hartley, saying that they believe his actions were not deliberate, that Hartley was truly remorseful, and that jailing him might do more harm than good.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case like this,” Bateman remarked at the end of the hearing. He told Hartley that he had been poised to impose a much harsher sentence until he heard testimony about his good character and the wishes of the victim’s family.

Hartley attempted to face DeChristopher’s family and apologize, but began sobbing uncontrollably, his words mostly unintelligible. As he struggled to speak, David Stewart called out, “I forgive you.”

Hartley’s mother, Sharon Maxwell, with whom he lives, described her son as respectful, helpful and hardworking, and well-regarded by others in their Ogontz neighborhood. While the area has its share of crime and drug abuse, she said, “He chose not to do that, because he worked. He never got involved in drugs because he works for his money.”

Hartley told Bateman that he has been employed by the same restaurant chain for 11 years, and that he had never been arrested or issued even a traffic ticket. He said he remains extremely troubled by DeChristopher’s death, and that, while he does not have a substance abuse problem, he attends A.A. meetings to talk to others about the accident because he can’t afford to pay for professional counseling.

Dana Stewart, the victim’s daughter, said she is grateful that her son wasn’t killed, “and I thank God that he didn’t remember much about what Dad must have gone through.” She called Hartley’s actions a “stupid mistake” that changed lives forever, but said she saw no point in jailing him.

“To see him go to jail is not something to relish,” she said. “I don’t want to see a good man go to jail and maybe turn into something that he wasn’t before.”

David Stewart then spoke, saying he had been extremely close to his grandfather growing up and as an adult. “While I did witness his last breath and felt his pulse fade, I have come to terms with the fact that I can forgive you,” he told Hartley.

Like his mother, Stewart said he regarded Hartley as a good man who was truly remorseful for his mistake and who did not need to be imprisoned. He said he saw Hartley “as kind of the last victim of this accident, and I don’t want to add any more salt to the wound.”

Assistant District Attorney David Keightly, who prosecuted the case, said he did not oppose placing Hartley on work release. He asked Bateman to be mindful of sentencing guidelines that called for three to 12 months in prison in the standard range. Hartley’s attorney, Steven Kellis, requested probation for his client.

Bateman said the testimony he heard had changed his view of the case.

“My initial reaction when I looked at it was that it was a really bad case” and that Hartley should spend considerable time in prison. Despite the pleas not to jail Hartley, Bateman said, “you have caused an accident which resulted in the death of another person,” making probation inappropriate.

Bateman said he would not oppose placing Hartley on work release or house arrest if he is approved by prison officials. In addition, he ordered Hartley to perform 100 hours of community service.

With the consent of the victim’s family, Bateman gave Hartley a pocket-sized photograph of Joseph DeChristopher. He urged Hartley to carry it with him and use it when speaking to community or youth groups about the accident.

“If you save just one life by doing this,” the judge said, “then it will have been a success.”

Approved for release by Michele Kelly Walsh, Deputy District Attorney.

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