They spent nearly three hours waiting in a Philadelphia courthouse lobby for a moment a year and a half in the making.
There, Ceeanna Pate’s father, mother and aunt contemplated what they wanted to see happen inside a jam packed Courtroom 1105 at the Criminal Justice Center. Amid supporters, they shared copies of the victim-impact statements they would soon deliver before Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner.
Those statements touched on the emptiness which has consumed their lives since hit-and-run driver Terrie Fleming struck 19-year-old Ceeanna Pate in a speeding car and left her for dead on a Nicetown street the night of Oct. 4, 2013.
Those statements mourned for the loss of a mother of two, and worried whether those children, now 5 and 3 years old, would ever fully grasp the loss they’ve been forced to endure.
But those statements also noted the consolation of knowing that Ceeanna’s kidney and liver gave total strangers a new lease on life after her passing.
“I want to see her taken out of that room in cuffs, punished for the crimes she committed,” said Steven Pate just before the sentencing hearing commenced around 11:50 a.m. “Whatever the sentence is, I hope every minute feels like an hour, every hour feels like a day, every day feels like a week and every week feels like a year.”
The hearing begins
The courtroom was packed with supporters of both the deceased and Fleming, who pleaded guilty in January to homicide by vehicle, leaving the scene of a fatal accident and involuntary manslaughter charges.
After Pate was struck by a speeding vehicle which fled the scene without slowing down near Clarissa and Brunner sts., neighbors likened the sound of the collision to a bomb explosion.
A surveillance camera captured the gruesome images of a woman being thrown nearly 100 feet by the force of impact from a car traveling an estimated 55 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone. The mother of two would be declared dead at Temple University Hospital five days later.
Those details were an afterthought on Wednesday. The case wasn’t being litigated. After both sides had time to speak, Lerner would impose sentence. It could fall anywhere between the one-year mandatory minimum to the highly unlikely 22-year prison term.
Speaking up for Ceeanna
First up before the judge was Ceeanna’s aunt Terri Sorrell.
She could barely compose herself when sharing that the thought of a loved one being “mowed down in the street like an animal” left her “in such a dark place where I’ve never been before.”
“I was there when she was born and I was there when she died. I lost a piece of me,” said Sorrell. “Nobody knows how hard it is to explain to [Ceeanna’s children] that their mother is in heaven now and never coming back. They don’t grasp that.”
Next up was Ceeanna’s mother Ivy, a soft-spoken woman who read from a handwritten statement (PDF).
“Even though giving Terrie Fleming jail time won’t give me, my family and my daughter’s kids back the life that was snatched from us all,” she said, “Fleming will still share hugs, kisses, holidays, new births of grandchildren and much more with her family.
“I would have loved to see my daughter enjoy the experience of raising her children. There is so much that we have lost behind this tragic incident that words or imprisonment could not explain. …We want to see justice served.”
The last prosecution witness was Steven Pate, the victim’s father (PDF), who said the pain of having to bury a child will “haunt me for the rest of my life.”
“My daughter Ceeanna will never be able to share in her children’s lives, the first day of school, graduation and giving a mother’s love,” he said, seeking the maximum sentence. “We lost our daughter for life. Ain’t no coming back. But [the defendant] gets to go to jail…and when she gets out, she gets to go back to her life.”
Speaking up for the defendant
Fleming’s attorney Jeffrey Azzarano acknowledged the tragic circumstances which brought them all to court on Wednesday and introduced 11 people who came to court to support his client. They were relatives, friends and work associates.
Fleming’s former boss Vernon Pierce said she was “a person of high morals.”
Donna Douglas, who said Fleming “was like a sister to me,” labeled the defendant as a caring person. She sought a lenient sentence for Fleming’s “tremendously bad decision.”
Rev. Sydney Stevenson knows Fleming from her work as resident coordinator at University Square Apartments in West Philadelphia. She said Fleming is “always about giving to others.”
Fleming’s sister Renee Price was the last witness to speak. She said that her sister understood the Pate family’s pain since they lost their own mother, who was fatally stabbed 19 times when they were young.
“She doesn’t need anybody to whoop on her. She’s whooping herself on the inside because she knows how it feels to lose a mother,” said Price. “Everyone in life unfortunately has, whether they’re big ones or little ones, accidents. I’m asking you, judge, to understand that she’s not a monster or a murderer.”
Lawyers, defendant speak
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Lipscomb, noting that the hit-and-run was “shocking in its cruelty,” asked Lerner to impose a 2-5 year sentence while covering the estimated $6,700 cost of Ceeanna Pate’s funeral.
Acknowledging that “there are no winners in this case,” the defense attorney Azzarano asked the judge to consider the fact that Fleming turned herself in and, in pleading guilty, spared the Pate family the emotional cost of the case going to trial.
“She’s accepted full responsibility for the pain she’s caused,” he said.
Then, Fleming spoke.
Without once turning and looking at the Pate family, she asked for their forgiveness and said that she has a daughter around the same age that Ceeanna would be today.
“I always tell her please don’t walk in the street, please don’t walk in the dark, please don’t walk alone,” Fleming said. “I was afraid and confused [when I fled the scene]. …I am really truly sorry.”
Time for sentencing
As he prepared to impose sentence, Lerner said that he watched “that horrible video” of the collision a couple times.
Lerner said that these cases are more difficult from a sentencing standpoint than many homicides in the city because, in many instances, both the victim and defendant don’t live a lifestyle that puts them in harm’s way.
He decried what Fleming did that night, noting that “the worst of your actions is that you didn’t even slow down. You just sped away.”
While he considered avoiding trial a good thing for the Pate family, “I don’t have any doubt that the decision of the jury would be any different” than guilty.
Then, Lerner sentenced Fleming to 2-5 years (concurrent) on the homicide by vehicle and leaving the scene charges (both felonies), an additional two years of state-supervised probation and $6,700 restitution.
An hour after the sentencing hearing began, a sheriff’s deputy led Fleming out of the courtroom and into custody.
In the hallway outside the courtroom, Ceeanna’s mother, Ivy, said she “actually felt a lot better” to have the legal aspects of the case done.
For his part, Steven Pate hearkened back to what he said just before the hearing started.
“Satisfied,” he said. “I’m satisfied that this is over and we got to see her taken off to prison.”