CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Jessica Morrell was walking to a restaurant to meet friends for dinner last March. She never made it. The driver who hit and killed her said in court Thursday morning that he was guilty of misdemeanor death by vehicle.
Investigators say Morrell was in the crosswalk on South Tryon Street near Bland Street when a car hit her. The driver kept going but a witness followed the car and took a photo of the license plate.
The investigation led police to Jeffery Laforce, but he wasn't home the night of the crash when detectives went to his address.
The next morning he turned himself in to police and was charged with involuntary manslaughter.
"I believe the defendant's birthday was right around this time and he had actually posted to Facebook earlier that day a meme with a shirt that says 'tonight's forecast - alcohol and bad decisions,'" the prosecutor told the court. "However, the state was not able to get any evidence of impairment at the time of the wreck due to the period of time lapsing between the wreck and his eventual interview."
Prosecutors and Laforce's defense attorney reached a plea agreement with Laforce pleading guilty to misdemeanor death by vehicle and felony hit and run.
Under the agreement, Laforce received a sentence of 13-to-25 months suspended, supervised probation for 30 months, 60-day sentence with credit for time already served, alcohol assessment treatment, 12 months curfew and he's not allowed to drive for a year.
Morrell's relatives expressed disappointment that LaForce won't serve prison time.
"I don't completely understand this justice system where no time is spent. I don't understand the need for a plea bargain in a case like this. I think everybody knows Mr. Laforce was drinking and driving. I don't care if he got away with it or not. He basically decided to hide for the night until his blood alcohol went down to the next morning before he turned himself in," the victim's uncle told the judge. "And I think that's cowardly. I think it's irresponsible and I think it's putting himself ahead of everybody else - something Jessica never would have done."
"Jess was supposed to be my maid of honor this past October and he took that from me," a woman told Laforce. "While you were too cowardly that night to look Jessica in the face, we hope you look in all of our faces now to feel the loss that we feel and know that we have lost one of the best people I've met and ever born."
She added, "You may not be in jail or punished to the extent we feel you deserve for taking her life, but I pray that after today you get your wakeup call and you learn from this."
"From the time we were children, Jessica was always doing good and bring her smile where ever she would go. She served at church, volunteered throughout her life with organizations like Habitat for Humanity giving of her time, her money and her love to others," her sister said. "Always giving, always smiling, always laughing. The world - all of us, her friends, her family – we were robbed of that smile and that laugh. My four kids - they miss their godmother, their fun cool aunt Jessie."
Morrell's sister told the court, "I won't get to grow old with my sister. Instead, we mourn a life so full of hopes and dreams, yet Mr. Laforce didn't find worthy of stopping for. A life that was spent lifting others up and bringing joy to all of us."