Driver in fatal motorcycle crash sentenced to treatment program, probation

Monday, August 27, 2012 | 10:15 p.m. CDT; updated 10:17 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 28, 2012

COLUMBIA — A former MU student was ordered to complete a 120-day substance-abuse treatment program plus five years' supervised probation in connection with his role in a motorcycle crash that took the life of another student a little more than two years ago.

After more than two hours of discussion and deliberation, Boone County Circuit Judge Jodie Asel handed down a sentence of four years in prison for Aaron Hansberry, 23.

The judge decided that because Hansberry had no prior record, he will complete a mandatory treatment program. If he succeeds, Asel will convert Hansberry's sentence to five years' probation, instead of four years in prison.

Hansberry was convicted May 16, 2012, of second-degree involuntary manslaughter.

In August 2010, he crashed his motorcycle at East Nifong Boulevard and State Farm Parkway. MU student Caitlin Valora was riding behind him.

Valora, 20, who was about to start her junior year at MU, died of blunt trauma at the scene of the accident. Hansberry was hospitalized with a broken right leg.

One motorcycle helmet was found at the scene of the crash, and police said at the time they thought Hansberry had been wearing the helmet, according to previous Missourian reporting.

The prosecution had sought a conviction for first-degree involuntary manslaughter but couldn't persuade a jury that Hansberry was intoxicated at the time of the crash.

In court on Monday, Assistant Prosecutor Brent Nelson told the judge that alcohol played a part in the crash and submitted to the judge Facebook photographs of Hansberry drinking alcohol roughly four months after the accident. But the prosecution was unable to convince Asel to apply the maximum four-year sentence.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the judge to decide justice, but anytime we ask for a maximum sentence and don’t get it, we’re disappointed,” Nelson said.

Before the sentencing, Valora’s parents, Michael and Patricia Valora, read prepared statements about their daughter’s life. Patricia Valora read condolences from some of her daughter's friends and asked the court to consider how Hansberry's actions affected the family.

"My husband and I have life sentences without parole," she said.

Michael Valora reminisced about his daughter's life. "She had a heart of kindness and gentleness toward people I have rarely seen," he said in a statement.

The defendant's family also gave statements. Michelle Hansberry and Dave Taylor, sister and uncle of Aaron Hansberry, respectively, testified to his good character while recommending that he not serve time in prison. Michelle Hansberry told the court about how he had supported her when she was receiving treatment for cancer.

Aaron Hansberry also made a statement in court before he was sentenced.

"I think about Caitlin every day," he said. "I feel guilty for finding joy. I feel guilty for living."

Alluding to the date of the crash, he said, crying: "I would give anything to have 8-9-10 back."

Behind him, his sister, Michelle Hansberry, cried as she sat with other members of her family.

After the statements were made, Asel called for a recess so that she could review letters in support of both the victim and the defendant in the case.

Katie Steinke, a friend of Valora's, said the family had been hoping for the maximum sentence of four years. "But at least (Hansberry) got something," she said.

"We're all sentenced to a life without Caitlin, and we're all being punished for (Hansberry's) decision," Steinke said.

In 2011, the Valoras filed a wrongful death suit against Hansberry. The case is pending.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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