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In emotional hearing, young driver sentenced to probation for causing crash that killed friend

Before sentencing an 18-year-old Belleville woman to probation Thursday for causing a crash that killed her friend and classmate at Belleville High School, a Dane County judge urged the woman not to further punish herself for an act she said lacked “criminal intent.”

Samantha J. Trainor pleaded no contest to charges of negligent homicide, reckless driving and criminal damage to property for the July 16, 2017, crash that killed classmate Eric J. O’Connor in the town of Primrose.

Before sentencing an 18-year-old Belleville woman to probation Thursday for causing a crash that killed her friend and classmate at Belleville High School, a Dane County judge urged the woman not to further punish herself for an act she said lacked “criminal intent.”

Samantha J. Trainor pleaded no contest to charges of negligent homicide, reckless driving and criminal damage to property for the July 16, 2017, crash that killed classmate Eric J. O’Connor in the town of Primrose.

Circuit Judge Ellen Berz then went along with the sentence recommendations in the plea agreement and sentenced Trainor to 18 months of probation. She also ordered that the charges be dismissed if Trainor completes the conditions of her probation. Those conditions include making at least five presentations to teens about reckless driving as part of her 50 hours of community service.

“You can move forward in your life in two ways: It can be negative or it can be in a positive way. I’d bet my bottom dollar Eric would want you to move forward in a positive way,” Berz told Trainor during the emotional sentence hearing.

Berz went on to tell Trainor that a light of O’Connor’s life is glowing inside her as well as every person who was touched by his friendship.

“That light carries a responsibility” for Trainor to make the most of her life, help as many people as she can and then “thank Eric for inspiring you,” Berz said.

Both Trainor and O’Connor were 17 and seniors-to-be at Belleville High School when Trainor’s Honda Accord struck O’Connor’s ATV at a high speed on Highway A in front of the O’Connor family farm.

Trainor was charged eight months after the crash. A criminal complaint states that data downloaded from her car showed she was driving 91 mph about two seconds before hitting O’Connor’s ATV at 75 mph.

Assistant District Attorney William Brown told Berz that O’Connor was driving the ATV just ahead of Trainor prior to the crash and made a motion with his hand meant to indicate he was turning left. But Trainor interpreted it as a signal for her to pass him, he said.

Berz said she didn’t think Trainor should have been criminally charged. “I don’t understand the purpose for the prosecution,” Berz said. “But we are here nonetheless.”

She said the community doesn’t need protection from Trainor and that she doesn’t need rehabilitation. “Tragedies and accidents happen in life. That doesn’t mean that one has criminal intent, that one committed a crime,” she said.

Both O’Connor and Trainor were described in about 20 letters written to Berz by parents, teachers, school administrators and others in the community as gifted, charismatic, caring and having strong character.

In their letter to Berz, O’Connor’s parents, Sherry and Steve O’Connor, wrote that a scholarship fund called Forever 56 — named after the number on O’Connor’s football uniform — drew so much support from the community that it awarded more than $20,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors from Belleville High School last year.

They also told Berz they supported Trainor “the way the community supported us.”

Trainor, they wrote, “is a good person who made a horrible mistake” that she’ll always carry with her. “It has been very hard for her to talk to us, although she has, and she is remorseful.”

Trainor, who is a freshman at UW-Platteville and wants to become an elementary school teacher, fought through tears as she read a statement that included an apology to the O’Connors. “Thank you for forgiving me,” she said to them. “I’m still working on forgiving myself.”

After the sentence hearing concluded, Sherry O’Connor and Trainor had a tearful hug in the courtroom.

Brown told Berz that O’Connor’s parents did not want the DA’s Office to pursue criminal charges against Trainor. “This was a challenging, unique case,” he said.

Trainor, who had received her driver’s license just months before the crash, was not texting or looking at her cellphone at the time of the crash, according to Brown. She also had no drugs, alcohol or caffeine in her system, he said.

“They were just being kids,” Brown said.

Brown also told Berz that he was strongly in favor of having Trainor speak to young drivers about the dangers of reckless driving as a condition of her probation. He recalled that he was a young driver when he listened to somebody make a court-ordered talk about the dangers of not wearing a seat belt. “I still think about that all the time,” Brown said.

“I hope that somebody’s life is saved (because of Trainor’s talks),” he told Berz. “I hope Eric’s life lives on that way.”

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.