Tears flow, plea agreement questioned at Grace Wight sentencing hearing
MANCHESTER – Like a lot of women, Debess Rogers was a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and in-law, and a loyal friend to a diverse legion of
But according to more than a dozen people who either submitted, or read in court, victim impact statements Monday afternoon at the sentencing hearing for the young Lyndeborough woman charged with taking Rogers’s life in a 2016 auto-pedestrian crash, it was the way Rogers embraced each and every one of those roles that made it that much harder for everyone who knew her to come to terms with her death.
Grace Wight, now a 19-year-old college student, was 17 and a rising Wilton Lyndeborough Senior High School senior when, while driving home from a friend’s house in the wee hours of July 15, 2016, the Dodge Ram truck she was driving struck and fatally injured the 60-year-old Rogers.
The roughly three-hour sentencing hearing before Judge Amy B. Messer in Hillsborough County Superior Court North took place on what would have been the fifth day of Wight’s jury trial.
But the trial was halted on Friday after the parties indicated they’d come to an agreement, the terms of which didn’t sit well with some of Rogers’s relatives and friends who read impact statements to the court.
Wight went into the trial facing two felony offenses, one a negligent-homicide charge, and one misdemeanor count of vehicular assault.
It was the misdemeanor charge to which Wight agreed to plead guilty, while the felonies were dropped as part of the deal.
Messer sentenced Wight to 90 days in jail, all suspended for three years, and ordered her to perform 200 hours of community service – at least 50 of which must involve speaking to groups of teenagers about the dangers caused by speeding and other such reckless acts behind the wheel.
Also, Wight’s license was ordered revoked indefinately, according to the terms. Messer said she can apply for reinstatement, but must wait until March 2024 – seven years from the time she was officially charged with the crimes.
Although some of the speakers urged the court to either give Wight some jail time or at least increase her community service time, Messer said she decided to “go forward without changing the agreed-to
“Importantly, (the sentence) incorporates something that was very important to Ms. Rogers – community service,” Messer said.
“You have a difficult road ahead,” the judge said to Wight. “It will not be easy to speak about your actions regarding driving. But the hope is you’ll prevent future tragedies.”
The first member of Rogers’s family to address the court Monday was Taylor Arnett, her son-in-law, who is married to Rogers’s younger daughter, Lara.
“Deb was an intelligent, caring, thoughtful person, who was always working to improve herself to make the world a better place,” Arnett said.
He said he wanted to “make sure that Grace knows what a great deal she received … she killed someone but does not have to go to jail.
“She’s extremely fortunate,” Arnett said, occasionally glancing toward the defense table, where Wight sat with her lawyer, Attorney Jim Rosenberg.
“I do appreciate you finally taking responsibility,” he continued. “to be honest I never wanted you to go to jail, and I don’t know if Deb would have either.
“I do know that you were way out of control … I want you to know Debess’s death could have been prevented, if you weren’t driving late at night like you shouldn’t have been,” Arnett said.
He recalled how he and his wife learned of Rogers’s death two days after it happened, while they were in the midst of a bicycle tour abroad.
“Lara just started screaming at the top of her lungs, ‘no, no, no,’ she didn’t believe what she just heard,” he said, referring to the “facetime” hookup that allowed them to communicate with
Lara Arnett placed a framed photo of her and her mother on the podium before addressing the court.
“It was very painful that Grace’s family didn’t reach out to my family after the accident,” she began, recalling passing Wight’s mother, Jennifer, who, she said, “pretended not to know me.
“My family was very sad to hear that Grace’s family hired a lawyer … and never spoke to the police in honest fashion about what happened the night she killed my mother,” Arnett said.
Jeremy Hall, who is married to Rogers’s older daughter, Andra, called July 15 “the worst day of my life.
“The moment Guntis stepped out of the police cruiser, with a look that can only be described as complete devastation,” Hall said, referring to Rogers’s widower, Guntis Grabazc, who police drove to Hall’s home from the crash scene.
“Then having to wake my wife and tell her … ,” he added.
Eli Grabazs, the couple’s son, said in a statement read by his sister, Andra, that his late mother “was the person you could count on most.
“She was so important to me … she loved music, she had a diverse gorup of friends who all loved her.
“My parents were high school sweethearts … I can’t remember anytime in my life seeing my father cry, but this broke him,” he wrote.
Andra Hall turned to Wight as she began reading her statement.
“Grace, I’ve waited a year and a half to tell you this,” Hall said, going on to describe her mother, and what she meant to so many people.
“You’re going to have to live with knowing the truth of what happened that night, for your entire life,” Hall said. “You took the greatest grandmother in the world from my children.”
Hall questioned how Wight “could even get behind the wheel” after what happened, adding that she was reportedly seen “still speeding around town. To continue to speed shows you didn’t learn your lesson.
“What is going to be your wakeup call?”
She urged Wight to “please think long and hard and change your life for the better. I don’t want my mom’s death to be in vain.”
Guntis Grabasz carried several framed photos to a desk in front of the bench and set them up.
“I first met Debess as a 17-year-old … it was love at first site for me, and i think it was for her, too,” he began.
“Our love was strong. We were married 40 years and 19 days. We had a wonderful life together.
“It’s really sad, very sad, to see her grandchildren crying and saying ‘I miss grandma,'” Grabazs said, speaking softly and through tears.
“I used to be a happy person. But at the crime scene, when I heard the words ‘we regret to inform you that Debess Rogers is deceased,’ I felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest,” he said, referring to when police told him his wife was dead.
“My eyes aren’t always bloodshot for no reason.
“I’m a man of constant sorrow.”
Grabazs also urged Wight to “please consider doing more than 200 hours of community service, to honor the kind of person Deb was.”
Wight, who remained stoic while listening to the statements, nodded her head.
Rosenberg spoke briefly, thanking Rogers’s family for their statements. “I want to thank you for your good nature during this trial, despite what you must have thought of me,” he said.
Wight then stood and took a deep breath, saying she first wanted to address some points raised in some of the statements.
“I wanted to approach you and be there for you as much as possible but I didn’t want to make you feel (worse) by seeing me,” she began, her voice breaking.
At the scene, she said, “I promise you I didn’t call home before I called 911. I called 911 immediately, the second I got out of my truck.”
Wight said she’s been involved in rescuing abused and neglected horses, and is currently training an abandoned mustang “that was supposed to be put down.”
“Community service has always been a big part of my life,” she continued. “I will continue to do it beyond my 200 hours.”
Wight recalled talking to Rogers – both families live on Mountain Road – saying she’ll “miss talking to her about our dogs … I’ll miss her questions about my horse.”
Rogers “is in my mind every second of every day … she was a great person,” Wight continued. “I cannot imagine what you are feeling but I just hope it comforts you to know that when Debess was in her final moments, she was with someone who loved her very much.
“I tried very hard to save her life,” she said of doing CPR and trying to administer first aid.
“I’m so sorry for everything that happened. She will always be in my heart.”
Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-1256, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Telegraph_DeanS.