GONZALES — A Prairieville woman who lost control of her sport utility vehicle on Bluff Road last summer, killing a brother and sister fishing alongside the state highway, pleaded no contest Wednesday to a careless operation charge.
Her head hung down and holding back tears while her attorney embraced her, Shawnette B. Taylor entered the plea before Ascension Parish Judge Marilyn Lambert.
Lambert, judge for the parish’s misdemeanor court, told Taylor the crash was “tragic, tragic, tragic.” Lambert said that drivers don’t realize how easily their cars can go off the road and pointed to several other careless operation cases that had come before the judge Wednesday morning before Taylor’s that did not result in deaths.
“Unfortunately for you, where your car went off just happened to be where two children were killed,” Lambert said.
Sarai “Ladybug” Lanus, 9, and her brother, Daylon “Duce” Lanus, 6, both of Geismar, died when Taylor’s sport utility vehicle ran off the road and plowed into them, their father and two other adults June 24.
Taylor, 48, 36353 Crestway Ave., Prairieville, went off the side of the narrow, two-lane road, also known as La. 928, at a place where there is shoulder and a steep embankment. The area is also in a curve.
Taylor’s 2004 Nissan Armada went down the embankment off the southbound lane and continued about 100 to 200 feet, hitting the group. The Lanus siblings were fishing with their father, David Lanus Sr., and two of his cousins in a bayou that runs near Bluff Road near Prairieville.
Lambert gave Taylor the maximum fine of $175 plus court costs, which she has until May 27 to pay. If Taylor does not want to pay the fine, the judge told her she would be sentenced to spend 30 days in jail.
The Ascension Parish grand jury on Oct. 10 declined to indict Taylor on two counts of negligent homicide, finding the gross negligence necessary for the criminal counts did not occur in the crash. State Police did find probable cause for the careless operation charge because Taylor failed to maintain control of her vehicle and ran off the road.
Under the no contest plea, Taylor does not admit or deny guilt but does not challenge the charge and agrees to accept the court’s sentence. The no contest plea cannot be used as an admission of guilt against Taylor in any civil litigation over the crash.
In January, the parents of the Lanus children and one of the other adult victims in the crash sued Taylor and the state Department of Transportation and Development.
Assistant District Attorney Morgan Gravois said she could not comment on the case.
District Attorney Ricky Babin’s spokeswoman, Charlotte Guedry, said the no contest plea had not been worked out in advance and was Taylor’s decision to enter.
Prosecutors did not object, however, Wednesday or push for a guilty plea from Taylor. But Guedry also argued that no contest was essentially the same thing as a guilty plea.
“Our job is to fight for the right of victims, but we also feel the prior situation was a tragedy for everyone involved,” Guedry said.
Guedry added that, in light of the facts of the case, Babin and Lambert were satisfied that the careless operation charge would bring the case to a resolution and that “justice has been served to some extent.”
The two children died despite attempts by bystanders with medical experience to save their lives. David Lanus and his cousins also were injured in the crash.
After the sentence Wednesday, Lambert urged Taylor to try to move on from the crash.
Taylor’s attorney, Peter T. Dudley, said later that his client remains upset over the crash. He said Taylor’s family’s hearts go out for the Lanuses and others injured in the crash.
“It was just a tragic accident,” said Dudley, who also is representing Taylor and her insurer in the civil suits over the accident.
He noted his client was not on her cellphone nor intoxicated at the time of the accident and, according to a police report, was driving the speed limit.
No one from the Lanus family nor those related to other victims in the crash spoke up when Lambert called for them before the plea Wednesday.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.