Joseph Duffy stood in Schenectady County Court on Friday and entered three guilty pleas to aggravated vehicular homicide.
Each plea carried with it the name of a life lost: Vanessa Cohn, Summer Penny and Betty Brockhum — a mother, a daughter and a grandmother from the same family.
Duffy admitted Friday to driving under the combined influence of drugs and alcohol in Duanesburg the evening of Sept. 2, 2015, and causing the deaths.
In return for his plea, Duffy is to receive a sentence of 6 to 18 years in state prison at his sentencing in July. Had he gone to trial, the maximum possible sentence he would have faced for his single act: 8.3 to 25 years in state prison. Sentences from single acts can only run at the same time, not consecutively.
No family members of the victims attended Friday’s plea, but they are expected to attend Duffy’s sentencing, prosecutor Stephanie Hughes said.
Hughes said she’s been in touch with Cohn’s widower this week about the plea. She said he understands the finality of the plea, heading off a trial and possibly years of appeals and that the sentence is a few years off the maximum.
Still, Hughes said she knows that such a sentence can’t compare with the damage caused.
“It doesn’t seem fair because it is three generations, three lives that have been lost,” Hughes said. “But we’re required to work within the limits of the law as it is today and just hope that some day it’ll change.”
Duffy’s full-size SUV slammed head-on that evening into the sedan driven by Cohn. Cohn, 35, of Esperance, was driving her 14-year-old daughter, Summer, and Cohn’s mother, Brockhum. The family had been out that evening to shop for school supplies.
Duffy moved into the oncoming lane of Route 30 to pass two vehicles but never returned to his lane as he approached a curve and hill near Duanesburg Churches Road shortly before 7:10 p.m.
Duffy’s Dodge Durango then slammed into Cohn’s Suzuki Forenza sedan in the no-passing zone.
Cohn died at the scene, Penny died soon after and Brockhum, 56, of Gloversville, died of her injuries two weeks later.
Duffy’s attorney, Brian Mercy, has previously indicated authorities found his client had a blood alcohol level of .04, under the legal limit for DWI. On Friday, he identified amphetamine as the drug that authorities alleged they found in Duffy’s system.
Mercy didn’t have information as to why the amphetamine was in his system, but he said he didn’t believe it was due to street drugs.
Hughes confirmed the amphetamine finding, but said authorities don’t know exactly the source.
“Without the defendant telling us, we may not really know exactly,” Hughes said.
Duffy allegedly told a trooper after the accident that he’d taken Ritalin that morning. Hughes said Ritalin would not turn into amphetamine in blood tests.
Mercy said the presence of the amphetamine in the tests put the burden on the defense to prove it didn’t affect his driving.
He doesn’t believe a jury would have looked at the case favorably for the defense. Also, Duffy took the plea to take responsibility for his actions, Mercy said.
“Mr. Duffy has been extremely remorseful for this action and it was important to him to accept responsibility for his actions,” Mercy said. “He didn’t want to force a trial for the victims’ families.”
Judge Matthew Sypniewski presided over Friday’s plea.