Curtis Harper sentenced to 30 years for hit-and-run accident

Curtis Harper sentenced to 30 years in prison for hit-and-run accident

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Curtis Harper speaks to the judge before his sentencing. Curtis Harper speaks to the judge before his sentencing.
"We are not a family anymore. Not without my dad," Angela Soto said. "We are not a family anymore. Not without my dad," Angela Soto said.
"At that point not only he died, but he and my children," Soto's widow, Elbia, said "At that point not only he died, but he and my children," Soto's widow, Elbia, said
"I have a two-year-old girl that I'm raising that will never know her mother or her sister," Stephanie Thornell said. "I have a two-year-old girl that I'm raising that will never know her mother or her sister," Stephanie Thornell said.

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - The man who was found guilty of killing a man, a woman and her unborn child in a hit-and-run accident was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Curtis Harper was found guilty in April on charges of vehicular homicide by reckless conduct, vehicular homicide by intoxication, driving under the influence, tampering with evidence, reckless endangerment, and leaving the scene of an accident.

The conviction stems from an accident on Washington Pike in late May of 2012.

In that accident, Chasity Thornell and a friend pulled over because the car ran out of gas. Neighbor Nelzon Soto gave them gas and as he and Thornell embraced, Harper struck them while driving drunk, killing both Soto and Thornell as well as her unborn child.

Victims' families give impact statements

Nelzon Soto's daughter Angela spoke first to talk about the loss of her father, saying it had a devastating impact on their family.

"We are not a family anymore. Not without my dad," she said.

Nelzon Soto's widow, Elbia, spoke next through a translator.

Speaking through tears, she described moving with Nelzon from Guatemala to the U.S. when he was 19 and she 18.

She described him as a happy man who loved to help people and wanted to one day be a pastor.

But she said her life changed the night he was killed.

"At that point not only he died, but he and my children," she said. "At my home there is no more happiness. My house feels lonely without Nelzon."

Chasity Thornell's mother Stephanie spoke next.

She described her daughter as a good student who was well liked.

She spoke about the difficulty her family went through when her husband, Chasity's father, died.

But she also spoke about the joy of being with Chasity when she gave birth to her daughter, Ava, now almost 3.

"I'm so thankful I was able to watch my daughter become a mother," Thornell said.

She said she felt for Curtis Harper's family and told Harper that she knew he didn't intend to hurt anyone.

"But why you didn't stop..." Thornell said. "You had to have known you hit two people."

She spoke about having to raise Ava without Chasity and her unborn daughter, Chloe.

"I have a two-year-old girl that I'm raising that will never know her mother or her sister," she said.

Chasity's aunt and grandmother also spoke.

Janet Tinder spoke about her daughter, Sara. Her daughter was with Thornell the night of the accident and she witnessed the accident.

Tinder testified that there were four victims of the crime, not three. She said her daughter died a slower death as a result of the torture and nightmares she suffered in the six months after the accident.

She said her daughter had nightmares and would stay awake during the night to avoid having terrible dreams about the incident.

Harper supporters testify

Several people also took the stand to speak about Curtis Harper.

His former boss at Whole Foods said that he was always on time and willing to help out. She said that if he were to be released, she'd love to have him back as an employee.

A state prosecutor asked if she thought he was a danger to the community and she said yes.

University of Tennessee professor Sam Rogers spoke about Harper's record at UT.

He described him as a good student with a future that could have led to graduate school.

He also asked for lenience for Harper.

"I believe he should have constructive not destructive punishment," Rogers said.

David Thomley, Harper's former minister from Brentwood, talked about Harper participating in a local youth group and said that he felt he had the opportunity for a productive life.

"There's no denial of the wrong decisions made by a young person in a panic," Thomley said.

State asks for maximum sentence

Assistant District Attorney Sarah Keith asked the judge to hand down the maximum sentence, arguing that Harper chose to drive drunk again and didn't change his behavior after his first DUI. She said he never showed remorse.

"He didn't turn himself in until friends threatened to turn him in. He only worried about himself, not the victims," she said.

Defense asks for leniency

The defense argued that Harper didn't know about the victims and said it was a hazardous situation and dark outside.

"Save prison for people with no alternatives. This was an accident," he said.

The defense asked that Harper be confined somewhere other than a penitentiary for one year and then strict probation.

Harper speaks to family

Curtis Harper turned to the families and apologized.

"I will have this pain for the rest of my life," he said.

He told the judge his actions were immature and cowardly.

"I know I have to face the consequences of what I have done," Harper said.

Judge hands down sentence

Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz spoke directly to Harper.

"I want Harper to hear this. This is one of the most horrific cases factually and tragically, personally. I pray I make the right decision," the judge said.

She told the Soto family to find happiness in one another.

"Mr. Soto is in each one of you his joy, his faith, his love of his wife. They cannot be taken from you," Judge Leibowitz said.

The judge then handed down a total sentence of 30 years in prison.

The sentence included 11 years for each of the three murder counts, with two to be served concurrently, six years for tampering with evidence, one year for reckless endangerment to be served concurrently and two years for leaving the scene of an accident.

DA Sarah Keith and Stephanie Thornell said the sentence was just, but that no sentence length will bring back Chasity.

Harper's family said they did not believe the sentence length was just.

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