ITHACA, N.Y.—A Brooktondale resident was sentenced Thursday to five years of probation and fined $1,500 after reaching a plea deal on charges from a fatal collision with a pedestrian last year. Natalie Robertson, 26 years old at the time of the incident, struck and killed Charles Mohler while driving impaired on Buffalo Road in the Town of Caroline on April 1, 2021.

Robertson was arrested at the scene and charged with Driving while Impaired by Drugs and a seventh-degree drug possession charge. Later, Robertson admitted to smoking marijuana and taking Xanax and cocaine before the crash; she was not prescribed Xanax but claimed to have taken it and the cocaine on the day of the crash to deal with a toothache, according to her defense attorney.

Her charges were eventually escalated after she was indicted by a grand jury. On August 2, she pled guilty to two of the counts: driving while ability impaired by a combination of drugs, a misdemeanor, and criminally negligent homicide, a class E felony, according to District Attorney Matt Van Houten in court Thursday. The most significant charge, second-degree vehicular manslaughter, a class D felony, was excluded from the plea deal.

Judge Joseph Cassidy delivered the sentence, including that Robertson may not use alcohol or recreational cannabis during the probation period, and must have a prescription for any drug ingested that isn’t over-the-counter. A mental health and substance abuse evaluation and subsequent treatment are also required.

On the day of the incident, Mohler, 73, was walking across the street just after 3:30 p.m. after getting his mail when Robertson hit him while on her way into work. The prosecution’s crash reconstruction by the New York State Police, while it would have been countered in court, determined that Robertson had been traveling around 75 miles-per-hour in a section of Buffalo Road that has a 40 miles-per-hour speed limit, braking hard a few seconds before Mohler was hit. It claimed speed was the primary factor in the collision, along with Robertson’s impairment.

Mohler’s daughter, Ariel, delivered some gripping words during her victim impact statement, retelling the feeling of receiving the call from a neighbor informing her what happened to her father. In a steady but shaken voice, she spoke about memories of her dad and how the crash had provoked sleepless nights and stress attacks during the months after it happened.

“I have been robbed by Ms. Robertson of a wedding where I have someone to walk me down the aisle, I’m robbed of having a parent for all future life events,” she said. Her mother died after a five-year battle with ovarian cancer while Ariel was in college. “I’m robbed of getting to say goodbye to my dad, of getting some closure. I’m robbed of my only remaining family.”

She also dedicated a portion of her comments to lambasting the judicial process, arguing the sentence was far too lenient considering the severity of the incident, the loss of her father’s life and Robertson’s impairment at the time.

“I don’t know what went so horribly wrong that I have to be here finding the strength to argue that justice needs to be served for my father’s life, what went so wrong for me to be here arguing that his life did have value, and wondering if his life value is being diminished, his murder swept away, because of the road that he lived on,” she continued. She finished by hoping Robertson finds peace.

Robertson was asked if she wanted to address the court. She attempted to, but only briefly.

“This whole thing has been absolutely devastating,” Robertson said. “I did know your father, I saw him walking up and down the hill. I’ve lost sleep over this incident.”

Robertson then became emotional and abruptly stopped her comments.

Vehicular charges, even in incidents of death, are somewhat limited in New York. The incarceration period for the criminally negligent homicide charge would have been 1 1/3-to-4 years if pursued after a guilty verdict, according to Judge Cassidy during the hearing. A conviction on a second-degree vehicular manslaughter charge, which was dropped during the aforementioned plea process, has a maximum of seven years incarceration.

“The reality is homicides, for vehicular crimes, the sentencing structure is very different than an intentional homicide. A vehicular homicide, unless the person is literally trying to run somebody over, it’s based on negligence, bad decisions, poor judgment, reckless behavior,” Van Houten said after the hearing. “You could never say that Natalie Robertson wanted to cause the result of her actions. You start out with a negligent theory, and there are levels of that.”

Afterwards, Van Houten said that he was uncertain about the outcome of a jury trial—always a concern, considering the verdict depends on the opinions of 12 different people. But Van Houten said it was particularly relevant in this case, as he said two automobile crash reconstruction experts, one consulted by the prosecution and one consulted by the defense, were going to offer contradictory testimony at trial, each offering different circumstances of the crash.

Defense attorney Joe Joch confirmed that his expert would have placed more of the blame for the crash on Charles Mohler. Joch said he had instructed his client to not comment further on the case.

The seemingly light sentence came up repeatedly in court as well. Beyond the legal aspects, Van Houten cited Charles Mohler’s Quaker faith as part of Van Houten’s reasoning in being comfortable with the sentence, since the religion highlights forgiveness.

“When a defendant is willing to enter a plea of guilt, accept responsibility, expresses remorse and engages in other basic expectations and avoiding trial, based on the recommendation of both the prosecutor and the defendant, it is the regular practice of the court to commit to that sentence and not to [instill] some higher or more extreme or harsh sentence,” Cassidy said in an attempt to justify the sentence to Ariel Mohler. “I understand that that does not appear to be justice to you, and that is not justice for you, and I am sorry about that.”

Still, Ariel Mohler asked for an investigation into the prosecution’s handling of the case, maintaining her strong opposition to the sentence and insisting that the punishment made her father’s life seem “disposable.” Frustrated, she asked how a plea bargain admitting to a homicide could possibly lead to a sentence without incarceration. Cassidy pushed back against the allegation of prosecutorial mishandling, but said that if she sent him a letter outlining her concerns, he would consider it.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com