Judge Kaleb Cockrum on Tuesday sentenced Marci Kitchen to eight years in prison for driving drunk and running down two 14-year-old girls, including her own daughter, saying he didn't believe her version of events and felt the actions she took following the 2016 crash warranted a prison term rather than probation.
Calling her behavior "several steps from the norm," referencing Kitchen's allegedly asking her son to ram her damaged Jeep into a basketball hoop to disguise damage from the crash and to stay quiet about what he saw, Cockrum stated he "just didn't believe" Kitchen's claim that she thought she'd hit an animal in the roadway.
"There is nothing to cover up when you think you have hit a deer," Cockrum said.
The judge did note that he feels she is remorseful and thanked her friends and family for speaking and writing on her behalf to "show Ms. Kitchen is more than the horrible decisions of one night."
The sentence was the middle term Kitchen could have received for striking Kiya Kitchen and Faith Tsarnas — best friends born just 25 days apart — from behind while they were skateboarding on Eel River Drive on July 12, 2016, then fleeing the scene. Tsarnas died at the Fortuna crash site and Kiya Kitchen's death followed a day later at a Bay Area hospital she had been flown to following the crash.
Kitchen's attorney had argued for probation in the case, while the prosecution asked for what the district attorney's office calculated to be the maximum possible term, 11 years and four months.
Before handing down his decision, Cockrum heard from about a dozen speakers who talked about how their lives would never be the same, how plans they had for the future were ripped away in an instant, their deep anger at Kitchen and the struggle to come to terms with the loss of two young lives with so much promise.
Jevin Kitchen told the court he had to reconcile the fact that he not only lost his sister in a senseless act but the person responsible was his own mother who had asked him to lie, saying he was placed in the "worst situation any 17 year old could ever go through."
Now in college, Jevin Kitchen said he has endured the painful reliving of that night's events in endless court hearings to ensure that "the right thing is done." He asked the court to impose the harshest sentence possible.
"I don't want her to be part of my life in any way, shape or form," he told Cockrum, not looking in his mother's direction as she sobbed. "Every time I hear her name or see her picture, it hurts my soul.
"I not only lost my sister that night, but I lost my mother, too," Jevin Kitchen continued, saying he had trusted her but she betrayed him.
Joe Kitchen, the father of Jevin and Kiya, spoke of his anger toward his former wife and about how he might have been able to someday forge forward with finding a way to forgive her if she hadn't driven away from the girls that night.
"What happened to Marci? She was a great mom," Joe Kitchen said, calling her actions "soulless" and "narcissistic." "Kiya was my birthday present (both were born on May 1). She gave her to me and then she killed her."
Faith Tsarnas' mother Stephanie Baldwin, who along with many of the supporters wore glittery lapel pins in the shape of a ribbon, presented Cockrum with the last photo she'd taken of her daughter before putting her on a plane to visit her father in Humboldt County. She held then up a wooden box, saying she just wanted to show the judge the stark contrast of "how I brought my daughter back."
Baldwin, one of several Tsarnas family members who addressed the court, said her youngest child had a "smile that could melt your heart" and was, quite simply, hilarious.
She told the court she has so many regrets. Not spending more time with her daughter just playing. Not taking more pictures, just because. Not videotaping all the silly songs Tsarnas made up over the years.
"Marci Kitchen took from me that which is so precious, my child, so unique, never to be replaced," Baldwin told the court.
Kitchen, who was just weeks away from trial when she suddenly pleaded guilty as charged Aug. 20, also addressed the court, making her first public comments in the more than two years since the crash.
Dressed in a white blouse and a long oatmeal-colored cardigan, she stood with her hands clasped in front of her during the short remarks, saying all she ever wanted in life was to be a mother but "a mother doesn't kill her own child."
In a sometimes-shaky voice, Kitchen said, "Our lives are now grief and despair," and she wished she could console those she has hurt, adding "I used to be the shoulder to cry on. I used to be the responsible one."
"I'm the one who caused the horrific accident, the horrible pain, and there is nothing I can do to make any of that better," Kitchen continued. "I hope, with the sentencing, we can have some closure and mourn those two beautiful girls. I'm so sorry, your honor."
Several of Kitchen's friends also spoke on her behalf, saying she was a devoted mother and someone they could always depend on in times of need.
Dan Weaver, the stepfather of Kitchen's boyfriend, also spoke about how she has been ostracized by the community she grew up in.
"I have watched her lose her home, her family, her relationship with her children," Weaver told the court, adding later that "she is not callous. Quite the opposite."
At the end, the attorneys in the case had their say.
Kitchen's defense attorney Meagan O'Connell told the court that Kitchen "never would have left those children on the side of the road knowingly," adding that she "regrets every day failing to get out of the car and walk down the road."
"Marci will never forgive herself but lives every day with the knowledge that she took the lives of two beautiful children, one of them her own," O'Connell said. "She struggles every day to reconcile that she is alive and Faith and Kiya are not."
But, she noted, it's important for the court, the victims and the public to understand that Kitchen did acknowledge her role in the crash in the immediate aftermath of her daughter's death and made plans to turn herself over to law enforcement.
Kitchen's only intent that first night was to "stay with her daughter ... to see her through." O'Connell said Kitchen was asking the court to make "the difficult but fair decision to grant her probation."
Deputy District Attorney Stacey Eads, however, asked for the harshest sentence possible, calling Kitchen "callous, cold and a narcissist" who has attempted to "portray herself as a victim."
"Ms. Kitchen is not a victim. She is the cause of the collision, a collision that could have been prevented, that never needed to happen," Eads told the court, saying the actions she took afterward are those of a "manipulative, deceptive individual that even today is trying to play a part — the part of the victim."
"Her thoughts were not for the bodies she left behind but only for how she could avoid responsibility for what she had done," Eads continued.
Many of the attorneys' arguments in court Tuesday mirrored court filings each side had submitted for Cockrum's consideration before the sentencing — dueling documents that paint starkly different portraits of the events that unfolded on that summer evening.
O'Connell's statement of mitigation asked the judge to consider a number of factors in handing down Kitchen's punishment, saying that she is "asking this court to show compassion and mercy" by granting her probation. She also referenced a number of similarly charged cases — and a few that included the more serious charge of gross negligence — that resulted in probation.
"It would be unjust to sentence Marci harsher due to the media frenzy surrounding her case," O'Connell writes.
Kitchen, the defense statement reads, suffers from major depression and severe anxiety and her "disassociation" and "seemingly unmoved outward expression" ... "can be attributed in part to her mental health."
Kitchen's attorney pointed to the actions of law enforcement and news reports early in the case as the "catalyst to community outrage" that continues to simmer, writing that both "intimated that Marci was in hiding and to be on the lookout for her" when, in fact, she had made herself available to authorities via her attorneys.
The prosecution submitted its own report to Cockrum, asking for the harshest punishment allowable, saying anything less would be "an injustice to the victims, community and society."
Eads writes in her report that Kitchen "committed the ultimate betrayal of the trust each of the girls gave to her" when she drove away from the scene that night without calling for help.
"While there is no evidence Defendant intended to kill her daughter, Kiya, or her daughter's close friend, Faith, it is clear that Defendant was trusted to care for their well-being," Eads wrote, stating the betrayal continued when Kitchen asked for help in covering up the crime and returned to the crash site without taking responsibility, then continued to do so for more than two years.
Eads described Kitchen's actions as having "a high degree of cruelty and callousness."
According to Kitchen's outline of the events in the mitigation statement, she had a vodka and ginger ale, and took "a sip" of a shot before she and a friend got into her car and headed home on Eel River Drive just after dusk. (She also reported having a Bloody Mary earlier in the day.) Police never tested whether she was legally impaired the night of the crash.
Kitchen was going about 50 mph with her headlights on while driving down the road, which has no street lights, and believes "she might have looked down at her phone," the defense statement reads.
"Marci did not see anything in front of her vehicle when she struck Kiya and Faith. She recalls only a sudden loud bang and then saw that her windshield was cracked," the document states. "Marci immediately pulled over and looked out her window. She didn't see anything in the road and so she continued home."
Kitchen contends that thought she had hit a deer and continued home, and disputes that she took any steps to cover up the accident.
The statement says Kitchen has lapses of memory as to what happened in the ensuing series of events but remembers returning to the scene a short time later with her boyfriend and approaching an officer at the scene to say she might be the mother of one of the girls who was hit.
At the crash site, she tried to comfort her crying son before approaching a tarp on the road and seeing Faith Tsarnas underneath, then calling out for her daughter, who had already been taken to the hospital.
The defense wrote that Kitchen was in shock and one of her "biggest regrets was not embracing Faith." The report states that she gave an officer the girl's name, birthdate and contact information for her parents before leaving to see her own daughter in the hospital.
In turn, the prosecution wrote that Kitchen was described by an officer at the scene as being "dismissive" in the moment, that she didn't give information about her daughter's friend without prompting and "did nothing to help."
Eads also states that Kitchen didn't provide information about her involvement in the crash and "willfully flees the scene a second time."
Citing "the serious nature of her crimes, injuries inflicted upon the deceased victims and their families, lack of remorse, delay in acceptance of responsibility (if any has truly occurred), and dangerousness Defendant poses to others in light of her utter disregard for the well-being of anyone other than herself," Eads urged that "the court should sentence Defendant to prison."
In the end, Cockrum agreed. After Tuesday's court hearing, Kitchen was remanded back into jail custody — where she had been since Sept. 3, when she voluntarily surrendered the $750,000 bail bond that had kept her out of custody — to await her transfer to a California state prison.
Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor at the Journal. Reacher her at 442-1400, extension 323, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.