Bruce Burnside, the former Lutheran bishop convicted of hitting and killing a female runner while driving drunk, was sentenced Thursday to 10 years in prison, two-thirds of the maximum possible sentence.
Burnside, 60, also will serve five additional years on extended supervision for the death of Maureen Mengelt, 52, a Sun Prairie mother of three who police say was thrown 69 feet by the force of Burnside’s SUV.
The sentence came late Thursday afternoon after a nearly eight-hour emotional hearing at which numerous family members and friends spoke on behalf of the defendant and the victim. Burnside spoke for nearly 30 minutes, his first public comments since the crash 15 months ago.
He said he accepted sole responsibility for what happened and felt great remorse, but he continued to assert that he did not flee the scene of the crash or realize he was too impaired by alcohol to drive. Dane County Circuit Judge Nicholas McNamara rejected the credibility of those assertions.
Burnside’s family declined to comment after the sentencing. Many left in shock and in tears.
Kevin Mengelt, the victim’s husband, who had sought the maximum prison term of 15 years, called McNamara’s sentence “reasonable” and “well thought out.”
Burnside had pleaded guilty in May to second-degree reckless homicide, a felony. He was driving to an afternoon church event on April 7, 2013, when he lost control of his vehicle on a highway exit ramp in Sun Prairie and hit Mengelt, who was out for a Sunday training run. Police first spoke with him at a nearby gas station.
A preliminary breath test determined he had a blood alcohol level of 0.128 percent. The legal limit for driving in Wisconsin is 0.08 percent.
Burnside was charged with four felonies and one misdemeanor. The charges included felony homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and felony hit-and-run involving death. Under a plea agreement, he was convicted of the reckless homicide charge and also pleaded guilty to first-offense drunken driving, which in Wisconsin is a civil violation, not a crime.
The other charges were dismissed but read into the record, meaning McNamara could consider the facts contained in those charges.
Assistant District Attorney Emily Thompson spoke for more than 90 minutes, painstakingly laying out many facts of the crash, some of which had not previously been made public. Chief among them: Burnside had been texting the entire time he was driving from Madison to Sun Prairie, right up until the crash, she said.
The method was voice-texting, as opposed to thumb-texting, but the law makes no distinction between the two, as both are illegal and distract the driver, Thompson said.
Also revealed Thursday: Two hours before the crash, Burnside texted someone that he was sitting in his backyard with “my laptop and a Bloody Mary.” That suggests Burnside is not telling the truth when he claims he had not been drinking since the night before or early morning hours, Thompson said.
Also, Burnside’s blood-alcohol content was still 0.12 percent at 5 p.m. when his blood was drawn at a hospital, she said. Given how the body processes alcohol, that suggests the level was probably around 0.15 percent at roughly 2:45 p.m., the time of the crash, or nearly twice the legal limit, she said.
Thompson showed drawings of how Burnside sped away from the crash scene, rammed another vehicle with a 12-year-old passenger, drove in the wrong lane for a stretch, and ended up at the convenience store, where other drivers tried to block him with their vehicles.
Ultimately, strangers took his keys until police arrived, she said.
John Hyland, Burnside’s attorney, said his client ended up in the wrong lane after striking Mengelt and sought to quickly get out of oncoming traffic. His airbag had deployed, obstructing his vision, so he pulled over as soon as he thought it was safe, a matter of mere seconds.
“If you’re going to flee the scene, you don’t turn into a gas station,” Hyland said.
Hyland attributed the crash to a confluence of somewhat common motorist infractions, from speeding and taking one’s eyes off the road to voice-texting while driving and fiddling with a radio dial.
“This case is not about driving drunk, nor about hit and run, which are the roughest and most-common templates into which the media and others have tried to fit it,” Hyland wrote in a sentencing memo to McNamara prior to Thursday’s hearing.
Though Burnside “undoubtedly was impaired to some degree,” the effect of alcohol “is just one of the causes of the accident which took Maureen Mengelt’s life, and may not have been a greater cause than speed or distraction,” he wrote.
Hyland spoke of the long history and breadth of his client’s good reputation and said a prison term of two to four years would be appropriate. Three people, all clergy members, spoke on behalf of Burnside and urged leniency, calling him an immensely caring, creative pastor who was deeply loved by congregants. They said he has much more he could offer the world.
Nine people spoke on behalf of Maureen Mengelt, including all three of her children. Megan Mengelt, 20, the oldest child, lashed out at what she considered Burnside’s denial of his full culpability.
“Bruce Burnside has been shoving lie after lie down everyone’s throats, and I’m sick of it,” she said. “Mr. Burnside is a coward who fled the scene after hitting and killing my mother. He’s a murderer.”
Allyson Mengelt, 13, the youngest child, recounted in a soft voice how her mother had always been there for her. “I will truly never be fully happy again in my life,” she said.
At the time of the crash, Burnside was bishop of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). He later resigned from the clergy.
In court Thursday, he called what had happened “a nightmare beyond a nightmare for everybody” and said “no one deplores what I have done and what happened that day more than I do.”
“An innocent lady died because of me,” Burnside said. “That is the very terrible truth.”
In sentencing Burnside, McNamara said he was convinced the former bishop was someone “of good and solid character” up until the crash. “Few people have helped so many as Mr. Burnside has done with his life,” he said.
But he said Burnside perpetuated deceptions the day of the crash, including denying to an officer that he had been drinking. There is “strong” evidence Burnside fled the scene, McNamara said.
“The fact that he didn’t get away doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying to,” he said.
McNamara strongly rejected the idea that this was not a case about drunk driving.
“All of the other things that swirl around this case — impressions of how people feel and reacted, whether a person is telling the truth or not — all falls away when you look at the simple truth of the blood-alcohol content,” McNamara said. “The science here tells me that Mr. Burnside was incapable of safely controlling his vehicle, whether he thought he was or not, whether he’s telling the truth or not, whether he fled or not. He was drunk, and he was substantially drunk.”