RACINE — Jeff Coopman, one of the victims of a hit-and-run crash that severely and permanently injured him and his wife last January, made his way to the microphone to address the court on Monday.
“I have to ask, Your Honor, have you ever woken up and thought about the fact that maybe if you and your wife had died, it might have been easier?”
The question hung in the air as Coopman recounted all the ways he and his wife, Cheryl, were affected after they were struck by an SUV driven by Isaiah DeGroot, 18, in the Festival Foods parking lot, 5740 Washington Ave., in Mount Pleasant, last January.
“The challenges, I could sit here and talk about forever,” Coopman said, as he listed the physical, financial, emotional and psychological ways he and his wife were affected by the incident.
Cheryl Coopman lost an arm and a leg, and part of her brain as a result of the crash. Jeff Coopman suffered multiple broken bones and ended up having his leg amputated.
“I want a strong conviction ... Nothing you could do could make me happy right now, but it would help,” Coopman said.
There were no empty seats in the courtroom Monday as both the family and friends of the Coopmans and DeGroot gathered to hear DeGroot’s fate during his sentencing hearing.
Racine County Circuit Court Judge Mark Nielsen sentenced DeGroot to 36½ years in prison and 26 years of probation. He will be on probation until he reaches age 80.
“In every way a person can be damaged, Mr. and Mrs. Coopman were damaged,” Nielsen said.
Teen nets charges
DeGroot was initially charged with two counts of hit-and-run, great bodily harm; two counts of knowingly operating a motor vehicle without a valid license, causing great bodily harm; two counts of first-degree causing reckless injury; operating a motor vehicle without owner’s consent; 18 counts of bail jumping; and possession with intent to deliver or manufacture THC. All 27 of the charges are felonies.
DeGroot accepted a plea deal right before he was slated to go to trial in October. He pleaded guilty to two counts of felony hit and run, four counts of felony bail jumping, and one count of misdemeanor possession of THC.
He entered a no-contest plea to two counts of first-degree recklessly causing injury and one count of receiving stolen property for a firearm that was found in DeGroot’s vehicle after he fled the scene.
The plea deal included swapping a felony possession of THC charge with the misdemeanor, and the dismissal of multiple felony bail jumping charges.
Under the deal, DeGroot faced up to 55 years and six months in prison plus another 60 years and six months of extended supervision.
Assistant District Attorney Brian Van Schyndel cited not only the millions of dollars in medical bills the Coopmans face, but the fact that they will no longer be able to adopt their granddaughter, something they wished to do following the death of their only child last year.
Schyndel also pointed out that DeGroot was out of bond for a shooting incident at the time of the crash, and said his poor choices led him to injure the Coopmans.
“The only accident, the only random chance, is who the defendant would hit. He hit the Coopmans and he destroyed two lives,” Schyndel said.
The state asked for the judge to consider a sentence of between 60 years and the maximum penalty for the charges.
After that, family and friends of the Coopmans addressed the courtroom, asking the judge to consider a harsh sentence for DeGroot. One of the most of emotional moments was when Chris Dustman, one of the people who was first on the scene to the crash, testified.
He said he experiences nightmares when he thinks of the moment he came upon the scene.
“Have you thought of the nightmares I experience when I go to bed at night? With the vision of Cheryl lying between my legs, reaching for her arm for a pulse and for it not to be there,” Dustman said. “I will not forgive you. And I hope Jeff and Cheryl never do, either.”
‘A fair sentence’
DeGroot’s attorney, Aneeq Ahmad, asked the judge to consider “a fair sentence, not a lenient sentence.” Ahmad cited DeGroot’s past, including his anxiety issues, ADHD, and the trauma of seeing his mother go through verbal and physical abuse as a child.
DeGroot’s family also took to the stand in support of Isaiah, calling him “polite,” “kind” and “caring,” and telling the Coopmans how sorry they are for DeGroot’s actions.
Shonda Hayes, DeGroot’s mother, tearfully addressed her son in court.
“I do not condone your behavior or your actions, but I also know you didn’t mean to hurt the Coopmans,” Hayes said, as she turned to the judge. “It’s embarrassing, but I beg and plead that you have mercy on my son.”
After his family and attorneys spoke, DeGroot addressed the packed courtroom. “What I did was terribly wrong, and I’m ashamed of my actions,” DeGroot said. “I wish I could take their place, because they (the Coopmans) never deserved to be part of my horrible decisions.”
Ahmad asked for a total of 9½ years in prison.
Nielsen went for a far more substantial sentence, citing the gravity of the offense.
“You are a human being, but you are a human being who acted in a monstrous fashion, and who committed monstrous harms, and that’s what I have to deal with,” Nielsen said.