Judge John McClendon said Wednesday he struggled with the 10-year prison sentence he handed down to a 21-year-old father of two who admitted to causing a drunken driving wreck that cost a Lubbock police officer his foot.
The judge had a range of two to 20 years in prison to hand Jesse Tello, who stood before him in the 137th District courtroom that was packed with members of the law enforcement community who were there to support Lubbock police Officer Corey Owens and his family.
On one hand, Tello’s “serious” and “thoughtless” actions on May 30, 2015, forever changed life for Owens, his wife, Felicia, and their sons aged 5 and 2,” McClendon said.
“You made horrible decisions and you cost somebody something greatly,” he told Tello.
On the other hand, he believed Tello wasn’t in the same class as most defendants who stand before him.
“Quite often, I hear about the extensive (criminal) histories of defendants, and making the decision to punish them in the upper range of punishment is simple,” he said. “This isn’t one of those cases. And by the same token it’s not one of the cases where you look at the lower range either.”
He said it was obvious that Tello, like Owens, had family who loved him and it was rare to hear from a defendant’s employers that they would rehire them if they had the chance.
Witnesses on Tello’s behalf included a Lubbock County Detention Center counselor who said Tello has thrived in an inmate behavior therapy program and guides other inmates through it.
She said she feared a lengthy prison sentence would institutionalize Tello and make it difficult for him to return to the community and become a productive member of society.
Tello’s grandfather, who raised him, described him as a loving father and a wonderful child.
“If people such as your grandfather had not come forward, your employers and (an employee) at the jail, I can promise you you would have received something toward the higher range of punishment,” the judge said.
However, he was sure a probated sentence wasn’t appropriate in this case.
“You intended to put the key in that car and you intended to move down the highway when you shouldn’t have,” he told Tello.
Tello, who has never had a driver’s license, admitted to drinking enough alcohol to produce a .181 blood-alcohol level, more than twice the state’s blood alcohol threshold, then drive during a heavy rain at 75 mph on a section of Fourth Street with a speed limit of 50 mph.
Meanwhile, Owens was retrieving traffic cones that night from the trunk of his police cruiser, which was parked in the middle of the street to divert westbound traffic from the flooded road. Tello’s Buick Century plowed into the cruiser, causing it to spin and hit Owens, whose right foot was mangled beyond saving.
McClendon said he was in awe at Owens’ recovery and his determination to return to his job protecting the streets of Lubbock.
“Officer Owens was going out to protect you (the night of the crash),” McClendon told Tello. “He was going out to protect somebody coming off of Marsha Sharp and not hitting a lot of water and perhaps injuring and even killing themselves. The irony is that in protecting you he was hurt. I can’t look past that.”
Tello, who has about two years of jail credit, will be eligible for probation after serving half of his prison sentence.
Felicia Owens spoke to Tello after his sentencing and told him he put her family through an ordeal that has lasting effects.
Her husband had to watch in frustration during the first half-year of his recovery as she took on everything, she said.
“I never realized what an amazing husband, partner and father he was; how much he helped me and how we were a team,” she said. “Corey finally received his (prosthesis) and still to this day if it doesn’t fit right, he gets frustrated. Without realizing, it puts him in a bad mood that affects me and trickles down to our babies.”
She held back her tears long enough to tell him that she forgave him.
“I don’t forgive you for you, not for myself, or even for Corey,” she said. “I forgive you for my boys. It’s what I must do for them to become the men I’m raising them to be.”
In his closing argument, prosecutor Tom Brummett asked the judge for a punishment that would send a message that the community supports law enforcement.
He said the Owens family was given a life sentence because of Tello’s actions, which he said was “no accident,” a characterization Tello’s defense attorney and witnesses on his behalf repeated during the bench trial.
“This is a result of deliberate acts by the defendant,” Brummett said.
He told McClendon Tello’s numerous traffic tickets, including convictions for driving without a license and speeding, showed a pattern of behavior that inevitably resulted in the crash that injured Owens.
“This was foreseeable,” he said.
Frank Sellers, Tello’s attorney, told McClendon in his closing arguments that Tello is a hardworking man and a dedicated father who made a series of poor decisions that led to reckless actions and resulted in an avoidable accident that could have happened to anyone.
He said his client was the opposite of a typical offender who usually has a lengthy criminal record.
“He’s not somebody to be afraid of,” he said. “He couldn’t hurt somebody intentionally if he wanted to.”
Sellers asked the judge not to ignore his client’s potential just to send a message.
“On behalf of Jesse and his family, we could not be more sorry for Jesse’s actions. The Judge said it best — this was a horrible tragedy that will forever affect two families. We respect the difficult decision Judge McClendon had to make in this case,” Sellers said in an emailed statement.
Brummett said after the sentencing that he was unsure about the sincerity of Tello’s apology during his testimony on Tuesday.
“I’m in no position to decide whether he’s sincere or not,” he said. “He’ll have an opportunity to prove to us his sincerity over his sentence and that will matter more than anything.”