Ex-UF student gets 7½ years for hit-and-run fatality
Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 8:58 p.m.
Tears flowed from family members on both sides of the courtroom Wednesday during the sentencing hearing for 23-year-old Jessica Paige Becerra, a former University of Florida student who admitted Wednesday to leaving the scene of a June 2012 hit-and-run accident in which a 20-year-old on a bicycle was struck while crossing Archer Road.
The cyclist, Rebecca Harris, also a UF student, was struck by Becerra's Honda Accord on June 23. She slipped into a coma at Shands at the University of Florida and died on July 11, 2012.
Judge Martha Ann Lott told the packed courtroom that the decision to sentence Becerra to 7 1/2 years in prison was not an easy one.
"It's hard to imagine a more difficult case than this," said Lott, who went on to to say that the case was about the potential "loss of two lives" -- referring to both the victim Rebecca Harris and Jessica Becerra.
Harris was on her bicycle heading back to her dorm from a friend's home at 12:51 a.m. on June 23 when she crossed the road at the intersection of Archer Road and Southwest 16th Avenue and was struck by Becerra's 1996 Accord.
Becerra's plea was qualified: while she admitted to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, she denied being impaired at the time of the accident -- a factor that would have required prison time. Had Becerra not been impaired, she could have been sentenced to probation. Judge Lott would later rule that Becerra was impaired.
Defense attorney Nick Zissimopolous, of the Gainesville law firm Rush and Glassman, presented witness testimony from Becerra's psychologist, her employer and her parents regarding the deep remorse she has displayed since the fatal accident.
Dr. Ronald Laracuente testified that he hired Becerra in his medical office in an unusual move after her mother brought her in for complaints of headaches, abdominal pain, sleeplessness and loss of appetite.
Laracuente told the judge the symptoms pointed to emotional turmoil, and as a Christian, he wanted to help Becerra transform her guilt into repentance and redemption. Ultimately, Becerra joined the doctor's South Florida church and was baptized there this Easter.
Joe Becerra, who refers to his daughter by her middle name, cried as he told Judge Lott how much Paige had changed since the accident. He said his once happy-go-lucky college student would no longer leave her room and was deeply depressed due to her guilt over what she had done.
On the other hand, Rebecca Harris' family, dressed in cream and donning purple flower lapels, said they did not believe Becerra was truly remorseful, but rather was trying to avoid punishment for her actions -- a pattern that they said has been consistent since the night of the accident.
Becerra didn't stop after crashing into Harris, who slammed into the car's windshield while her bicycle's frame was left mangled from the force of the impact. In fact, Becerra drove to a friend's house and participated in a plot to abandon her car in the woods 15 miles outside Gainesville.
She did not turn herself in until a week later, when a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Assistant State Attorney Steve Frisco also presented witnesses who testified that days after the accident, Becerra moved back to South Florida with her parents, only to return to Gainesville a month later for a night of drinking and partying.
Those witnesses were the same friends who helped Becerra get rid of her car and cell phone in the hours after she struck Rebecca Harris. Those witnesses were also granted immunity from prosecution for their testimony.
The last witnesses to testify were Rebecca Harris' sisters, Catherine (Rebecca's twin) and Anna (via a video recording); her mother Shelly Harris, and father James Harris. All four testified about the loss of the young woman they say loved God and loved others.
Shelly Harris told the judge she believed her daughter would have wanted to give Becerra a chance to redeem her life, which is partly why she supported the prosecutor's recommendation of 10 years in prison, a third of the maximum penalty of 30 years.
In addition to 7 1/2 years in prison handed down by Judge Lott, Becerra will serve 2 years of community control and 5 years on probation.
Outside the courtroom, James Harris told reporters he was satisfied with Judge Lott's sentence. "Ultimately, we were looking for a balance, not losing another life," said James Harris. He also said he hoped to one day join Becerra at UF to talk to new students about the perils of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Gainesville Police Department spokesman Officer Ben Tobias was present at the sentencing hearing and said he hoped this case would make an impact on the community.
"This needs to be a wakeup call for our culture on drinking and driving," said Tobias. "Both of these young women were well known and this is a tangible example of what can happen on both sides."