Even people seated in the courtroom awaiting their own proceedings fought back tears Tuesday morning when a San Luis Obispo woman pleaded no contest to killing 86-year-old James Grant Snider while driving under the influence, a somber conclusion to a case described by the judge as “difficult” for everyone involved.
Jane Ann Upton, 53, faced prison time in the case but under terms of a plea deal will serve 364 days in the San Luis Obispo County Jail and five years of formal probation, as well as about $2,700 in restitution to the victim’s family.
Due to Upton’s enduring medical issues from injuries suffered in the crash, as well as her remorse and lack of a prior criminal history, Judge Rita Federman said she will allow Upton to apply for an alternative work program or home detention before she is due to begin her sentence Dec. 5.
Upton had pleaded not guilty to felony charges of driving under the influence resulting in injuries and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated with gross negligence as well as a criminal enhancement for causing great bodily injury to a person over the age of 70.
In November 2014, Upton was driving north on Foothill Boulevard north of O’Connor Way in a Toyota Prius when she crossed over the double yellow lines and into the path of a southbound Ford Escape driven by Snider, of Los Osos.
The vehicles crashed head-on; Snider died at the hospital, and Upton suffered major, life-threatening injuries that kept her from attending court hearings as she spent several months in a neuro-rehabilitation clinic following her release from the hospital.
Medical records have not been made public in the case, but Federman revealed at Tuesday’s hearing that Upton was under the influence of prescription drugs at the time of the crash.
After Upton’s change of plea, a representative from the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office read a statement from Snider’s son, Pennsylvania State University Chancellor Kevin J. G. Snider, who described his father as “adventurous,” “larger than life” and “one hell of a storyteller.” He wrote that he is haunted by the thought that the elder Snider died without his wife by his side.
“When (Upton’s) car hit him, he was an old man with more miles behind him than in front of him,” the letter read. “But he still had more to do.”
The statement read that Snider’s family was split over their opinions of Upton, but Kevin Snider wrote that he hopes she “finds peace.”
“I hope she pays a debt to society,” he wrote. “I also hope she will honor my father by working to improve the lives of others. Because she and my father are now forever linked.”
Snider’s wife sat in the audience wiping tears from her eyes but did not make a statement.
Before Upton was sentenced, she addressed Loretta Jean Snider, struggling to speak and doing so so softly that Federman ordered the court silent.
“I want you to understand how deeply saddened I am. Mr. Snider sounds like a great man,” Upton said. “I respect and admire him, and Mrs. Snider, for what she’s had to endure, and for her understanding.”
Asked if she understood the charges she was pleading to, Upton said: “I understand it. I admit it.”
Her attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, called the case one of the most difficult of his career and said Upton was “overtaken” by her guilt. He said, however, that Upton’s medical condition requires her to have a caretaker and that incarceration would amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Agreeing that the case was one of the most difficult to preside over, Federman said she weighed Upton’s remorse and her statements that she didn’t believe the prescription medication she was taking would affect her driving, and accepted the terms of the plea deal and said she will allow Upton to apply for alternative sentencing.
“On all sides, this is a difficult case,” Federman said.
Upton could face a maximum of eight years in state prison if she violates her probation, Federman noted.
A restitution hearing is scheduled for Jan. 16 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.