A Madison man who was driving at close to 100 mph on a city street last spring before he struck and killed a man and severely injured his wife as they walked their dog on a sidewalk, was sentenced Friday to seven years in prison.
While Dane County Circuit Judge Nicholas McNamara said he worries how Benjamin Cortes, 20, will do behind bars, he said he also worried what might happen if Cortes left court thinking he got a good deal, “that this was almost acceptable.”
“I don’t want to live in a place where people could kill someone and just go home,” McNamara said. “We can’t accept that.”
Cortes had the active ingredient in marijuana, along with the remnants of cocaine use the day before, in his bloodstream when he drove at least 95 mph down Midvale Boulevard on April 27, lost control of his car as he tried to pass much slower traffic, then struck a tree and Gregory and Patricia Nametz as they walked their dog, Zeke, near Midvale Baptist Church.
Cortes told police he was racing a friend, who was driving another car, when the crash happened.
In October, Cortes pleaded guilty to second-degree reckless homicide for the death of Gregory Nametz, 72, and first-degree reckless endangerment for striking Patricia Nametz, 68. After serving his prison sentence, Cortes will spend five years on extended supervision.
Patricia Nametz spent 46 days at UW Hospital and many more weeks after that in rehabilitation and therapy, which continues. She wrote in a letter to McNamara that her heart “aches” thinking about the loss of her husband, someone she knew since 1974 and she misses every day.
“On April 27 Greg and I went for a walk with our dog, Zeke, in our neighborhood,” she wrote. “We just wanted warm weather to be here soon. Greg was looking forward to his favorite time of year, May through September, visits to his hometown, and getting together with family and friends.”
“It was a time to enjoy spring and a good rest of the year,” she wrote, “but instead on April 27, 2018, our family suffered a terrible tragedy that has caused deep heartache for us. April 27, 2018, was supposed to have been an ordinary day, a good day for a walk in our neighborhood. We did nothing wrong.”
Their daughter, Emma, wrote about all of the medical decisions she had to make for her mother, while unable at that point to even process her father’s death.
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“One of the hardest moments for me was when I had to tell my mom that my dad, her husband, had passed away,” she wrote. “That is the most difficult thing I have done in my life.”
Before “this thoughtless act,” Emma Nametz wrote, “the three of us were a very close family.” They lived close by and got together often. “Now there will always be an empty place. It is nearly impossible to express how much has been taken from my family and me because of this horrible accident. Life will never be the same.”
Assistant District Attorney William Brown asked for a 15-year prison sentence, followed by 10 years of extended supervision. He said that while data recovered from Cortes’ car put his speed above 100 mph, those points were measured when the car’s wheels were off the pavement, during moments when it was airborne, and the car’s average speed was in the low- to mid-90s.
On top of that, Brown said, Cortes knew that his car was not in good condition, that the steering wheel shook when the car got over 30 or 40 mph. But still, he chose to drive more than 60 mph over the speed limit for Midvale Boulevard.
“He probably did it because he had done it before and thought it wouldn’t harm anyone else,” Brown said.
Cortes’ lawyer, Chris Van Wagner, did not recommend a specific sentence but pointed to other sentences issued in impaired-driving homicide cases that were lower than what Cortes ultimately received. He said Cortes’ decision to speed was the product of a brain still not fully mature, which “didn’t really understand the power of that vehicle to kill.”
Cortes asked McNamara for compassion and for “a chance at life again.” He called the crash “truly a tragic mistake.”
“I would like to express how sorry I am for this tragic accident,” Cortes said. “I am truly sorry for hurting your loved ones. I never wanted to hurt anyone, innocent bystanders who were doing nothing wrong.”
He said he learned a lot from the crash and vowed to teach young people the dangers of speeding. He also asked the Nametz family to someday forgive him.
McNamara said, though, that it’s not Cortes’ place to ask for forgiveness right now.