Saying there are no winners in these types of cases, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge sentenced a Los Osos teenager to seven years in state prison Wednesday for hitting and killing a bicyclist while she drove drunk last year.
Gianna Catherine Brencola, who was 17 years old when she struck and killed a bicyclist in San Luis Obispo and then fled the scene, faced up to 10 years after pleading no contest to vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run resulting in death last month.
The Los Osos resident was accused of crashing her Mazda 3 into 22-year-old Kennedy Love, a San Diego native and third-year Cal Poly landscape architecture student, as he was riding his bicycle along Foothill Boulevard near Ferrini Road on Aug. 28, 2017.
Brencola was arrested early the next day after witnesses told San Luis Obispo police they saw somebody matching her description behind the wheel of a vehicle that struck a bicyclist.
Witnesses said the vehicle pulled into a nearby parking lot, where two women got out and examined the damage before getting back in the car and driving off. The vehicle was discovered abandoned on Tassajara Drive.
Brencola allegedly admitted to investigators that she was driving the vehicle that struck Love, and that she had been drinking alcohol earlier that night. Court records said she had a 0.15 percent blood alcohol content level roughly five hours after the crash.
Brencola entered an "open plea" to the charges on March 6, which gave Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen discretion to sentence Brencola to as little as formal probation — which her attorney, Paul Phillips, argued for — to no more than 10 years in state prison, which Love's family asked for.
Love's family and nearly three dozen of his friends, neighbors and fellow students, packed the courtroom Wednesday, requiring a move to a larger courtroom.
Dee Dee Love, holding photos of her son, described him in a statement to van Rooyen as a well-traveled "good person who helped others." She said Love collected recyclables as a third-grader to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims and later volunteered for a year in Bosnia with the group Engineers Without Borders.
"He always looked out for the left out, the hurt, the lonely," Dee Dee Love told van Rooyen. "My son understood relationships. Loving people is what gave Kennedy's life meaning."
Last Sunday would have been Kennedy's 23rd birthday, she said, and the family gathered at his grave instead of celebrating it with him.
"To say that my heart is shattered is an understatement," she said. "I feel like an empty vessel, a shell of what I used to be. I cry myself to sleep every single night."
The mother asked van Rooyen for the maximum sentence.
"(She) left him to die in the street, bleeding to death, by himself alone," Dee Dee Love said. "Ten years (in prison) is nothing. My son was handed a death sentence by her."
Candice Love, Kennedy's older sister, echoed her mother's call for a "just sentence" that included prison time.
"Kennedy was my pride and joy," she said. "There's nobody like him, your Honor, and nobody will ever be like him."
She said she and her family do not think of Brencola as a "monster" but listed five decisions she made the night of Love's death that showed "a blatant disregard for human life."
"The leaving (the scene) — I don't get it. What if you could have saved his life?" she asked Brencola. "It's a dehumanization of a young man."
Candice Love urged the San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly communities to acknowledge and reject their "unhealthy relationship with alcohol."
"Choices we make every day make a difference," she said, referring to drinking and driving. "Set a precedent that this is not something our community tolerates."
Deputy District Attorney Chase Martin, who prosecuted the case, described Kennedy as "someone I have fallen in love with" over the course of the proceedings, and he praised Love's family for their strength.
"It pains me as a prosecutor I can't obtain justice for these folks, but I'll certainly try," Martin said. "It strikes me as terribly unfair."
He said if laws are to have any meaning, Brencola should face between seven and 10 years in prison.
Brencola — who openly and loudly sobbed for most of the hearing, her parents sitting and wiping away tears behind her — did not address the court. Her attorney, Paul Phillips, asked that van Rooyen sentence his client to formal probation including terms that she speak about her crimes at local schools and spread the message about the dangers of drinking and driving.
He pointed out that Brencola did not have a previous criminal record, was honest to the arresting officer and has not made any attempt to bail out of County Jail. He also noted Brencola's age at the time of the crime and how the human brain is not fully developed at that time.
He finally noted that Brencola apologized to Love's family in a letter submitted to the court.
"Ms. Brencola accepted responsibility and did it as swiftly as the process would allow," Phillips said. "More than just the impact of the crime needs to be considered."
Before making his ruling, van Rooyen called vehicular manslaughter cases involving driving under the influence "the most difficult for a judge — and there's too many of them."
"We know when alcohol and driving mix, terrible things happen," van Rooyen said. "People become criminals who would not otherwise be criminals."
To Love's family, van Rooyen said he heard and understood from them Love's humanity and the impact his death left on their lives. To Brencola, he said he sees a person "deeply affected" by her crimes.
Acknowledging Love's family's words that Brencola is "not a monster," he told Brencola he hoped she's able to deal with the consequences of her actions and — when she's released — turn her life around.
"That's a gift — that's (the Love family's) gift to you," van Rooyen said.
Van Rooyen ultimately sentenced Brencola to the seven years in prison, minus 464 days of custody credits, and roughly $11,840 in restitution and court fines.
Following the hearing, Brencola was taken back to County Jail, where she awaits transfer to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facility while her permanent placement is decided.