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Guilty plea in fatal crash

The Baltimore Sun

A 26-year-old illegal immigrant who registered four times the legal limit for driving while intoxicated pleaded guilty in Howard County Circuit Court yesterday to causing a crash that killed a Marine corporal and his date at a Columbia intersection on Thanksgiving night last year.

Eduardo Raul Morales-Soriano of Laurel pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent manslaughter in the deaths of Cpl. Brian Mathews, 21, of Columbia and Jennifer Bower, 24, of Montgomery Village.

He will be sentenced Nov. 29. Prosecutors said they will ask Judge Lenore Gelfman to impose a prison term of eight years. The maximum sentence is 10 years in prison for each count, but because of factors including his age and history, state guidelines say Morales-Soriano should not get more than four years on each count.

After he completes his sentence, Morales-Soriano is expected to be deported, said State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone. Authorities believe he entered the country illegally from Mexico, McCrone said.

McCrone said that while members of Mathews' and Bower's families had varying reactions to the plea agreement, he stood by it. "We do not have any apology to make for the plea," he said.

Mathews' father, William Mathews, declined to comment on the plea agreement. "None of it helps me," he said.

Brian Mathews, a 2003 Howard High School graduate, was based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and had come home for the holidays. He was on his second date with Bower when the crash occurred. He had finished serving eight months of duty in Iraq in 2005 and was due to leave the military this year.

William Mathews said his son's death has been extremely hard on the family. With the sentencing scheduled so close to the anniversary of the fatal crash, he is expecting a difficult holiday season.

"There was a very deep bond there," he said. "Anniversaries hit you at levels you are not aware of."

Morales-Soriano, who worked as a landscaper in Montgomery County, slammed his Nissan Sentra into the rear of a Toyota Corolla driven by Bower that had stopped at a red light on Route 175 at Route 108.

He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.32 percent, according to a Breathalyzer test administered by police. Under state law, a motorist is considered to be driving while intoxicated with a level of 0.08 percent or higher.

Friends and family of the victims listened during the court proceedings as prosecutor Danielle Duclaux described the extensive damage that Bower's car sustained during the crash.

Members of Bower's family declined to comment after the court session. Morales-Soriano's family, including his father, also declined to speak with a reporter.

Before last year's fatal crash, Morales-Soriano was charged in Prince George's County with negligent driving, speeding and driving the wrong way on a one-way street after being stopped in Riverdale in July 2006. He was found not guilty, according to court records.

In February 2006, he was given four citations after an auto accident in a Columbia parking lot in which he refused to take a Breathalyzer test. No one was injured, and prosecutors dropped the charges, saying their evidence was weak.

Mathews' older sister Heather Hoppe said she was upset about the work of Howard police in the February 2006 incident.

"If he had been convicted, that could have elevated the sentence in this case," she said after Morales-Soriano's court appearance.

Police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said the role of the department is to collect the "best possible evidence and to make an arrest. Ultimately, it is the prosecutor's decision whether or not to move forward. Every case that comes to a prosecutor has different degrees in quality of evidence. We bring the best possible case, and prosecutors have to determine whether or not to [pursue] a conviction."

McCrone said that prosecutors had insufficient evidence in the February 2006 case.

"Without evidence, we can't go forward. It's regrettable, but that's the bottom line," he said.

Morales-Soriano's arrest contributed to a debate about driving and immigration law. He used a driver's license issued in North Carolina in 2004 to legally obtain a Maryland driver's license in 2005. A Maryland attorney general's opinion in 2003 said proof of legal U.S. residency was not a requirement for a driver's license.

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