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Monday, Sep 01, 2014
Crime & Courts

DUI victims’ daughters choose forgiveness over vengeance

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Published:   |   Updated: February 17, 2014 at 09:16 PM

TAMPA — Ernest Smith was about to be sentenced for killing three people in a 2010 traffic crash when two of the victims’ daughters stepped forward in court Monday and talked about pain, loss and forgiveness.

“Ernest, I pray that during your prison stay, you will seek God and become saved, also become the man that he put you on this earth to be,” said Cecelia Givens-Degree. Her father, Walter Givens, a church elder, and stepmother, Dione B. Givens, died in the Sept. 2, 2010, collision on 34th Street at Chelsea Street.

“We all have a purpose in life, and I pray you find yours,” Givens-Degree continued. “I prayed and asked God to allow me to forgive you, and, Ernest, I have. Not only have we lost my father, my stepmother and their friend; your mom is losing you.”

Smith previously pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI manslaughter. On Monday, Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez imposed the sentence recommended in a plea agreement: 15 years in state prison, followed by 15 years of probation and a lifetime suspension of Smith’s driver’s license. She also ordered him to pay a fine of $3,000 and while he is on probation to stay away from alcohol and bars.

Police said Smith was driving 84 mph on 34th Street at Chelsea Street when his 2008 Dodge Charger struck a 1995 Buick driven by Walter Givens, 67. He and his wife, Dione, 46, died at the scene.

Their friend, Helen Cummings, 58, of Tampa, was ejected from the back seat. She was pronounced dead at Tampa General Hospital.

Smith, now 23, and two passengers in the Dodge were injured.

Police tested Smith’s blood 2 1/2 hours after the crash and found his alcohol level to be 0.071 percent, below the legal limit of 0.08. However, investigators later concluded that at the time of the crash, Smith’s alcohol level exceeded the legal limit.

Cumming’s daughter, Sherra Daniels, said the time since the crash has been “very, very emotional, stressful, life changing. ... Today I come with a lot of pain, a lot of pain.”

But she said she has gained some understanding, too.

“Through years and time and faith and believing in God, I’ve come to realize everybody makes mistakes. ... As a human, you’re going to hurt. As you hurt, I know your family hurts, but I would just like you to know, while you’re suffering, we’re suffering. It’s a no-win battle.”

She urged Smith to learn from what happened “so when you are on the outside, just be more cautious of your behavior and your surroundings because everything has an effect in our actions. … I hope it’s a learning experience that teaches you to better understand. My family, me and my brother and sisters , we just want to say it’s going to take awhile, but in time, we will forgive you.”

Smith didn’t speak, but his mother, Benita McConico, tearfully thanked the victims’ families for their compassion.

“You have lost your loved ones, and I am about to lose my son,” she said to the families. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. … We’re all sorry. … Thank you for your prayers and forgiveness.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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