A Shingletown woman was sentenced Friday [April 3 2009] to six years in prison after being convicted last month of gross vehicular manslaughter for ramming into the back of a car in 2007 while texting on a cell phone.
Deborah Matis-Engle kept her head bowed as she was led away from the courtroom in handcuffs after being sentenced for what her prosecutor said was the first cell-phone-related manslaughter conviction in Shasta County.
Attorneys said the 49-year-old woman must serve half of her prison sentence before being eligible for parole.
Matis-Engle was speeding and text messaging on her cell phone on the afternoon of Aug. 13, 2007, when she slammed into a line of cars waiting at a Highway 44 construction zone, causing one of them to explode into flames.
Petra Monika Winn, 46, of Redding died when her car, which was at the end of the line of waiting vehicles, was rear-ended and burst into flames.
Winn's sister, Laura Basinger, embraced prosecutor Stephanie Bridgett after Superior Court Judge Cara Beatty imposed the maximum six-year sentence on Matis-Engle. Basinger said later that she is eternally grateful to those who tried to save her sister from the fiery carnage.
Beatty imposed the sentence after a lengthy hearing at which friends and colleagues of Matis-Engle testified about her character and Winn's family members described the ordeal of their terrible loss.
"She held the family together," Basinger said of Winn, noting that it tortures her to think about the last harrowing moments of her sister's life.
Beatty had earlier rejected defense motions that she disqualify herself from sentencing Matis-Engle and for a new trial.
The judge described Winn as a helpless victim.
"You can't envision a more vulnerable person," she said.
And despite heartfelt claims from Matis-Engle's friends that she was a caring, loving and gentle person, Beatty said it was clear to her that the woman's personality changed dramatically when behind the wheel of a vehicle.
"She drove without any concept that people might be in her path," Beatty said.
Bridgett said that Matis-Engle used her cell phone to conduct three separate bill-paying transactions in the final four minutes before the collision and was in the middle of one of those transactions when she slammed into Winn's car.
She also said that Matis-Engle was well aware of the construction work on Highway 44 because she drove the roadway every day, but ignored eight highway construction warning signs and was concentrating on her cell phone - and not on her driving - when she slammed into Winn's car near Dersch Road driving at least 66 mph.
Bridgett said that only months after the crash, Matis-Engle had been spotted twice by a California Highway Patrol officer texting on her cell phone while driving.
"This (fatal) collision had absolutely no impact on her," Bridgett said.
Redding defense attorney Jeffrey Stotter adamantly disagreed, saying his client was indeed remorseful and that her life has been ruined and "shattered" by the crash, which he said was an accident and not an intentional act.
Stotter said after the hearing that Matis-Engle's conviction and sentencing will be appealed.