Drunken driver gets 75 months in fatal Montville crash

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Claudia Gordon, mother of a victim in the fatal crash killing Connecitcut College student Elizabeth Durante shows crash photos Wednesday after a 75-month sentence was given Daniel Musser at Superior Court in Norwich.

By all accounts, 25-year-old former Navy sailor Daniel Musser lived his life with few blemishes.

“Up until the evening of March 6, 2009, Mr. Musser is not what we would conjure in our minds as a typical drunk driver,” said Norwich Judge Robert Young. “Mr. Musser, as you surely know today, this horrible accident could have been prevented by you in so many different ways.”

Following emotional testimony from family on both sides of the crash, Young sentenced Musser to six years and three months in prison today on a variety of charges that included second-degree manslaughter in the death of Connecticut College Student and aspiring doctor 20-year-old Elizabeth Durante.

The sentence was the longest prison term handed out of the 14 prior cases of vehicular manslaughter in the area.

On the morning of March 7, 2009, after a night of drinking at a nightclub and sitting for 90 minutes in his car, Musser left Mohegan Sun Casino and started driving. He managed to reach Interstate 395 in Montville traveling the wrong way on the highway without headlights where he struck a van head-on.

Eight students were in the van headed to Logan International Airport to serve at a medical clinic in Uganda for spring break. The crash was one of the factors leading to a decision by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to drop a proposal that would allow casinos to serve alcohol 24 hours a day.

State prosecutor Thomas Delillo said he did not know Durante, but through a tremendous outpouring from friends and family learned “she always appeared to think of others before herself.”

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the nearly three hours of testimony in court Wednesday came when Elizabeth Durante’s father, Keith Durante, looked Musser in the eye and offered his forgiveness.

“I have to forgive you for what you did,” he said. “I believe in my heart you don’t know what you did. It’s what you do now in life that really matters.”

Durante and others urged Musser to offer his own experiences and to prevent others from doing the same. Musser himself, in his apology to Durante and other victims, said it was his own decision that brought about the tragedy, shame to his own family and dishonor to the country he served.

“Prior to the accident, I would never considered myself capable of taking the life of another person,” Musser said. “I have snuffed out another life and the world is a darker place because of it. I ask the court not for leniency but for a sentence that allows me to give back.”  

Young said Musser’s action appeared to be out of character for the  former seminary student from Missouri who joined the Navy and never had a criminal record or reprimand in his military record. He said that was considered before sentencing.

In addition to the prison sentence, Young ordered Musser to attend 10 Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim impact panels and nine speaking engagement with high school or college students. He is to complete 90 hours of community service, 10 hours each year for each of the victims in the crash. When he does get his drivers license back, Young ordered an interlock device installed in his vehicle.

“It’s not the sentence we asked for,” said Susan Chapman of California, whose daughter suffered injuries in the crash. “But I think the judge heard us. I hope the residents of this community take steps they need to reduce the number of drunken drivers leaving the casinos. That was our goal, to send a message.”

 Delillo, who had asked for an eight-year prison sentence, said deterrence needed to be a major factor in the sentence, considering a history of drunken driving fatalities in the area.

Over the past 10 years, from 1999 to 2009, Delillo said there were 17 cases of vehicular manslaughter in the surrounding area, including 10 between 2005 and 2009 and three last year. Of the 14 prior cases, the average sentence was 3 1/2 years in prison and the longest six years in prison.  

Claudia Gordon, mother of crash victim Jessica Gordon, had been among others asking for the maximum sentence of eight years in prison.

“The crimes committed were violent crimes and a violent, grotesque death, not just a DUI. These young people were doing all the right things for all the right reasons,” Gordon said. “Minimizing the risks to others in the future must also be considered.”

Crash victim Susan Chapman, right, and her mother Laura Whitelaw talk Wednesday of the 75-month sentence given Daniel Musser at Superior Court in Norwich. Musser crashed in to and killed Connecticut College student Elizabeth Durante.
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