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Seven years for woman who had traces of pot in system during fatal crash

AliN. Bernard

Alia N. Bernard

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Updated: February 9, 2012 12:06PM

Alia Bernard finally had her chance to speak.

For two hours, she sat listening to others recount details of the horrific chain-reaction crash that killed a St. Charles couple and injured several more people. Bernard wrapped her arms across her body for comfort as pictures of mangled motorcycles were shown. She cried as family members stepped forward to offer painful stories of loss.

Then Bernard testified.

“For three years I’ve wanted to apologize. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I am so sorry for your loss,” the 27-year-old Aurora woman said. “I’m just heartbroken.”

Bernard’s apology came with tears that re-emerged when Judge Allen Anderson sentenced her to seven years in prison for causing the 2009 crash that killed Wade and Denise Thomas near Illinois 47 and Smith Road south of Elburn.

Bernard pleaded guilty in December to two counts of aggravated driving under the influence. She must serve 85 percent, or nearly six years, of the sentence. Bernard could have received probation if Anderson found extraordinary circumstances to spare her prison. In the end, Anderson said probation would diminish the seriousness of Bernard’s actions.

“Miss Bernard, you did not intend to do harm, but you caused harm,” Anderson said.

Bernard was indicted on the felony charges because she was found to have a small amount of marijuana in her system at the time of the crash, although prosecutors acknowledged she was not high when it occurred. Bernard’s attorney, Bruce Brandwein, pushed strongly for probation because of that fact, as well as his client’s lack of criminal history.

“It was an accident. A terrible, terrible accident. There’s no clear reason why it happened,” he said. Bernard, in her testimony, pointed to a “strobe light” effect of the sun off of motorcycle chrome as the reason she reached for sunglasses in her Toyota’s center cup holder.

Court documents also state Bernard texted someone around the time of the crash.

Bernard became vulnerable to the more serious charges after an April Illinois Supreme Court decision ruled that prosecutors did not have to prove impairment was a “proximate cause” of a fatal crash, but just that defendants have any amount of a drug in their systems. That decision prompted prosecutors to upgrade charges, and potential penalties, against Bernard.

Bernard cried loudly as she was handcuffed and taken away by deputies to the lockup area adjacent to the courtroom. Her family sat quietly in the gallery’s front row for several minutes.

Outside the courtroom, family, friends and supporters of the Thomases and other crash victims hugged and smiled in reaction to Anderson’s decision before gathering to talk with Assistant State’s Attorney Jody Gleason, who had recommended a sentence of eight to nine years.

The scene completed an emotional swing that earlier in the afternoon had the children of Wade and Denise Thomas telling the judge about what was taken away from them on May 23, 2009.

“I lost the most important man in my life, my father,” Amanda Thomas, Wade’s daughter, said. “I would give anything to have him back.”

Bridget Wold read a statement written by Denise’s middle son, Drew, who described his mother as his best friend. He recalled family cookouts, watching sports on TV and fond memories of Christmas. Denise’s death came just shy of her and Wade’s first wedding anniversary and months before Denise would have become a grandmother.

“They say time heals all wounds. That’s a lie,” Wold read. “We had to wait so long for justice. We still have a long road ahead ... learning to live our lives without them. I know they will always be in our hearts.”

Records show a 2009 lawsuit against Bernard by the Thomas estate was settled earlier this year, but no details were available.

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