A Durango woman who caused a head-on crash that killed her 8-year-old daughter in April 2016 was sentenced Thursday to six months in jail followed by two years probation.
Neysha Candelaria, 33, pleaded guilty in May to careless driving causing injury and careless driving resulting in death after hitting a patch of snow and ice, causing her car to cross the centerline and strike an oncoming vehicle.
Five children in the car – ages 1, 5, 7, 8 and 9 – were not wearing seat belts, authorities said. At least three children were thrown from the vehicle, including Mia Martinez, who died at the scene on Colorado Highway 140, near the New Mexico state line.
In a courtroom packed with friends and family members Thursday, Douglas Martinez, Mia’s father, was too overcome with emotion to read his testimony to District Judge Suzanne Carlson.
Assistant District Attorney Richard Schmittel, reading Martinez’s testimony, said the incident highlighted Candelaria’s “long history of failing to protect her children.”
Schmittel said there’s no way of knowing if Candelaria buckled her children before the drive, as she said she did. Candelaria has said her children unbuckled themselves at some point during the drive.
“But she didn’t stop, and she’s willing to be accountable for that,” Schmittel said.
The prosecution asked that Candelaria be sentenced to jail time followed by a lengthy probation period.
Barrie Newberger King, Candelaria’s public defender, said Candelaria has taken responsibility for the incident by attending therapy and receiving other mental health services.
Newberger King argued that jail time would only further isolate Candelaria from those services, as well as her other children.
“Should she go to jail, it would be sending her into a locked building to just sit there,” Newberger King said.
Several friends and family, as well as caseworkers with the Department of Human Services, testified on Candelaria’s behalf, saying she is a good mother who made a terrible mistake.
Brie Knight, a caseworker with DHS, said Candelaria has been fully compliant to treatment and trauma therapy, and that the department will close its case at the end of the month because they found no safety concerns in the family.
“Every time we work with Neysha, there’s improvement,” Knight said.
Judge Carlson applauded Candelaria’s efforts to seek help, but ultimately, she said jail time is warranted because Candelaria was “negligent and reckless” with her children.
Carlson said Candelaria has a long history of not taking the blame for situations and pinning it on others. This incident is an example, she said, because Candelaria said it was the children’s fault that they unbuckled themselves during the car ride. Carlson said as a result, Candelaria’s two older children hold themselves responsible for the death of their sister.
“They’re hurting ... because you haven’t taken the fault,” Carlson said. “These kids need to know it’s your fault ... in all probability, this child would be alive if she was belted in.”
Candelaria will be granted furloughs for therapy sessions with her children and can be considered for work release if she finds a job. She will also be required to pay restitution and continue therapy upon release, among other court-ordered stipulations.
Speaking to Carlson, Candelaria gave a brief testimony.
“My goal is to keep learning how to keep my kids safe and be a better mom,” she said.