AUBURN — A Lewiston woman who drove onto a walking path at Lewiston High School where she knocked down and ran over a student a year and a half ago was sentenced Wednesday to 10 days in jail.
Bilow Farah, 34, of 10 Knox St. was led in handcuffs Wednesday morning to Androscoggin County Jail after she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of driving to endanger and driving without a license. She agreed to the plea the morning her bench trial was scheduled to start. As a result, a felony charge was dismissed, lessening the likelihood that her immigration status would be jeopardized.
An earlier plea agreement hammered out last spring between prosecutors and Farah had been rejected by the court as too lenient.
Speaking through an interpreter, Farah, who is Somali, apologized in Androscoggin County Superior Court on Wednesday to the victim, Kelsey Cope-Norris, who was 17 years old on Jan. 14, 2010, the day of the accident.
"I cannot say how sorry I am," said Ahmed Isse, of Portland, who translated for Farah. "I didn't do this intentionally."
The mother of six children said she regarded Cope-Norris as one of her own children. The injured student had been high school friends with one of Farah's sons.
Farah was driving a white SUV Mercedes at 7:30 a.m. and had parked in front of the school where she had dropped off her four sons. As she started to leave, her vehicle ran up onto a curb and she drove down a walking path where Cope-Norris was making her way to school on foot.
After striking and running over Cope-Norris, breaking bones, Farah's vehicle struck seven parked cars before coming to a stop, police said.
Jeffrey Dolley, Farah's court-appointed attorney, told Justice Roland Cole on Wednesday that Farah had become confused because traffic patterns at the high school recently had been changed. She lost control of her vehicle and stepped on the gas pedal when she meant to step on the brake pedal, Dolley said.
"This was an accident, an unfortunate accident," Dolley said.
Farah, who came to the United States in 2006, had no recorded criminal history, Dolley said. She had lived in a refuge camp in Kenya for more than a decade before that, he said. She's a single mother on a fixed income.
In sentencing her to 10 days in jail for driving to endanger, Cole fined Farah $575. He fined her an additional $100 on the charge of operating without a license. She agreed to pay $50 a month toward the fines and fees she owes. Her license, which was issued to her after the accident, was suspended Wednesday for 180 days.
It was the latter charge that Cole said was most serious. "This is an unusual case," he said. Farah's decision to drive without a license is what led to a situation in which her inexperience put other people in harm's way, he said.
Assistant District Attorney Patricia Reynolds Regan was seeking a jail sentence of 30 days, leaving Farah free to argue for less jail time. Regan showed the judge video footage of the accident captured by a school surveillance camera.
Cope-Norris told the judge she saw Farah bearing down on her and tried to escape. That experience has left her physically and emotionally scarred, she said.
She wasn't able to sit for months after the accident, having undergone emergency surgery on her back and buttocks. She missed classes and exams and fell behind in school where she had been in the top 5 percent of her class before the accident. She had to drop out of classes she'd enrolled in at the University of Southern Maine and she had to give up an opportunity to work at a hospice house.
She still has numbness in her left leg and foot that may never improve.
When she crosses streets, Cope-Norris suffers anxiety attacks, she said. Although she knows it's supposed to be safe if she is crossing in a crosswalk with a red light, she no longer trusts motorists will obey the law, she said.
"Something bad can happen at any time," she told the judge.
Her mother, Evelyn Taylor, also spoke at the sentencing.
She said her daughter's ordeal has taken a lasting toll on her family. When she was summoned to the Lewiston hospital where Cope-Norris had been taken by ambulance, Taylor didn't know whether her daughter was alive or dead.
"My heart dropped, the tears started to flow," she said, clutching her daughter's hand as she read her prepared statement.
Were it not for a nearby snowbank, Cope-Norris might not have survived, her mother said.
"I thank God for snow," she said. "It is what saved my daughter."
She said she and her daughter urged the judge to sentence Farah to spend some time in jail.