Leila Bui’s mother has cried more in the past two years than she has her entire life.
Monday was an emotional first day of sentencing for Tenessa Nikirk, who was found guilty of one count of dangerous driving resulting in bodily harm in January.
On Dec. 20, 2017, then 11-year-old Leila was crossing the street in a crosswalk on her way to school when she was struck and thrown several metres by a late model Mercedes SUV driven by Nikirk.
Throughout trial, court heard how Nikirk had been speeding and driving erratically. She was also sending and receiving multiple text messages prior to hitting Bui.
An officer that searched Nikirk’s vehicle after the crash did not find any apparatus that would connect her cellphone to her car for hands-free use.
Dashcam footage shown in court shows moments before the incident. pic.twitter.com/HsXKRXAApH
— kendra crighton (@kendracrighton) October 26, 2020
Leila, now 13, is bound to a wheelchair and remains non-responsive. Following the crash, she was kept in an induced coma for several weeks and continues to require constant care.
Kairry Nguyen read her victim impact statement in court on Monday morning. Through tears, she told the courts how she was once a happy person, whose only goal was to have a happy life with her husband and four children.
“Without Leila we will never be whole again,” she told the courts. “I miss her every day, in every second and in every breath we take.”
She spoke about being unable to sleep, and how her heart skips a beat every time Leila’s monitor goes off, terrified something will happen.
“Leila was crossing the street like she did so many other times. We taught her to cross the street safely and we watched her many times before trusting her to do it on her. Leila was careful. That did not stop this vehicle, driven by a careless individual – who was negligent and did not care for the safety of the people in the area– hit her.”
Nikirk did not testify during her trial, but her lawyer read a letter from her to the courts Monday afternoon.
“Leila is on my mind all day. I don’t think there’s ever a moment I don’t think of her in some way,” Nikirk wrote. “When I go to sleep I can see her like it happened a moment ago. I can see her pale skin, her grey lips, like no time passed at all. I can hear people screaming so loud in my head I can’t sleep.”
Nikirk offered a “sincere and honest apology” to Leila’s family, acknowledging the catastrophic damage caused by her actions.
“I spent many nights laying awake praying and wishing I could take Leila’s place. I would do it in an instant if I could,” she wrote. “I promise you I will think of Leila every day by way of holding a silent vigil of remorse for her and what damage I’ve caused.”
Crown counsel Jess Patterson asked the court for a sentence of two to three years imprisonment. “This is very much like a death case,” said Patterson, referring to how, shortly after the crash, doctors were encouraging the Bui family to let Leila go. “They chose to maintain their hope, had they chosen otherwise, your honour would likely be looking at a different range of sentences here.”
Patterson said the collision left Leila “as close to death as she could come.” He noted that in the years after she hit the child, Nikirk received a speeding ticket. He asked for a five-year driving prohibition in addition to the prison time.
Defence lawyer Tom Morino told the courts that Nikirk has received threats on her life and that her actions should be considered in the middle to low end of the spectrum for moral blameworthiness. He is asking for a 90-day intermittent sentence to be served on weekends.
“At the end of the day, we are not talking about a death,” he told the courts.
Dashcam footage shown during the trial shows Nikirk’s vehicle passing another vehicle over a solid yellow line and speeding down the road. Minutes later the vehicle with the dashcam arrives at the scene, where Nikirk’s vehicle is stopped in the middle of an intersection. A number of people are seen running to aid Leila, who is laying on the ground.
Judge Mayland McKimm stated previously that it’s impossible to determine the precise time Leila was hit and whether Nikirk was texting at the moment of impact – but he found that her behaviour indicated that Nikirk was engaging in distracting behaviour for “some time prior to the moment of impact.”
“She was indeed distracted at the time of the accident. At minimum, her thoughts were elsewhere,” he wrote in his reasons for judgement.
During trial, an accident reconstructionist calculated – based off how far Leila’s body was thrown – that Nikirk was travelling between 53 and 67 km/h when she struck the child.
McKimm notes in his judgement, that Leila was alerted to Nikirk’s vehicle by the sounding of a witness’s horn. Leila began to run across the crosswalk but was struck “with significant force” by the SUV and her body was thrown at least 25 metres. The first officer on scene described the position of Leila’s body as “wedged” under another vehicle.
Nikirk did not testify during her trial.