HAVERHILL — "I forgive you."
The words hung in the silent courtroom under the weight of oppressive emotion. They came from a man who lost his wife of 37 years in a split second because Lisa Leavitt of Haverhill decided to drink too much and get behind the wheel of her car three months ago.
Leavitt had sobbed as she pleaded guilty, the only option the 37-year-old wanted. She didn't want a plea deal. She didn't want a trial. She just wanted to be punished for striking Karen LaPierre with her car as the 63-year-old church volunteer was loading doughnuts into her own vehicle early on a Sunday morning. The doughnuts were to be served after Mass at LaPierre's parish, Sacred Hearts Church.
For her crime of motor vehicle homicide while operating under the influence of alcohol, Leavitt received the maximum sentence of 2 1/2 years behind bars.
But from LaPierre's widower Bill, Leavitt received forgiveness.
"I forgive you for what you have done to my family and me and hope you get the help you need to become a better person," Bill LaPierre said.
His touching statements rippled through the room. Men and women who were waiting for their hearings became teary-eyed, as did various officials, including veteran police officers, court officers and others. One remarked it was the most emotional court hearing they had ever seen.
The accident happened at 5:20 a.m. on Dec. 18. Karen and Bill LaPierre were making their regular Sunday morning stop at Heav'nly Donuts at 55 So. Main St. in Bradford to pick up doughnuts for hospitality gatherings after morning Masses at Sacred Hearts Church. Karen LaPierre was putting the doughnuts in the truck when Leavitt drove into her.
Prosecutor John DePaulo read excerpts from a police report of the incident, but refrained from reading some of its graphic details. "He saw his wife get pinned between the two cars," DePaulo said without elaborating.
DePaulo said Leavitt had failed several field sobriety tests police conducted at the scene. He said a subsequent Breathalyzer test showed a blood alcohol level of .18, twice the legal limit. "I killed someone, I killed someone," DePaulo said, referring to comments Leavitt made to police following her arrest.
Bill LaPierre, who sat at a table alongside DePaulo, then stood up and, in an expression of resolve and strength, talked about his wife, how she had been taken from him and how much pain Leavitt had caused. He called the accident "an inexcusable act of disregard for a beautiful human life, by a drunk driver."
"My life will never be the same, my loneliness is a daily sentence for me," Bill LaPierre said. "When Karen died, I lost my best friend, my lover, my primary confidant. I also feel I have lost part of myself."
Lisa Leavitt looked downward from time to time and sobbed quietly while holding her hand to her face. She appeared filled with anguish as LaPierre told her he forgave her.
Leavitt's lawyer, Gerard LaFlamme, said in his 31 years of practicing law, Leavitt was the first client to hire him on the grounds that he not try to explore any defense.
"She made it clear that she wanted to take responsibility for her actions," LaFlamme said. "She did not want to put the LaPierre family through anything more."
He said Leavitt wasn't a churchgoer prior to the tragic accident, but has been attending church while being held at MCI-Framingham. "When she gets out, she will be a better person," LaFlamme said.
Judge Michael Uhlarik told LaPierre that he was incredibly strong and courageous for coming before the court. He said he recognized that Leavitt took responsibility and that she recognizes her criminal behavior.
"This is one of those cases where you wonder what kind of penalty fits the crime," Uhlarik said. "Hopefully this sentence will further help Miss Leavitt understand the immense tragedy this has caused."
"It's one of those cases of bad judgment, really bad judgment," Uhlarik said, adding that from what he has learned that Karen LaPierre was a "pillar of the community."
Uhlarik sentenced Leavitt to 2 1/2 years in prison, of which she must serve 2 years, with the balance suspended. Leavitt, who has been held on $50,000 cash bail since her arraignment in December, was given credit for 101 days served.
Following her release, Leavitt must wear a monitoring bracelet and be under house arrest for six months, then be on probation for five years, during which she cannot drive. A 15-year loss of license was also imposed. In addition, Leavitt must stay away from alcohol, will be subject to random screenings, and must pay various court fees, including a $50 OUI assessment fee, a $65 monthly probation fee and a $90 victim witness fee.
After yesterday's hearing, Bill LaPierre along with his brother John LaPierre, his sister Dianne Weeks and her daughter Jean Daneau, and Karen LaPierre's sisters Denise Chapdelane and Sherrill Evers gathered in the hall outside the courtroom.
LaPierre told The Eagle-Tribune that Leavitt's willingness to take responsibility for the tragedy was one small step on the path to closure for him and his family. "No matter what happened, it's not going to bring Karen back," he said.
Reflecting on Uhlarik's comments to Leavitt, Bill LaPierre said she can begin her work in prison.
"There are a lot of people in prison with alcohol problems," he said. "Part of my life is to do prison ministry for three prisons."
A woman, who was identified as Lisa Leavitt's mother, walked up to Bill LaPierre, hugged him and told him she was sorry for what had happened.
"We pray for the LaPierre family," said one woman who waited for Leavitt's mother and said she was a friend of Lisa Leavitt.