PITTSFIELD -- A 46-year-old city man, whose wife died after she got out of the car he was driving, was sentenced on Wednesday to a two-year suspended jail sentence with two years of probation after pleading guilty to misdemeanor second-offense drunken driving.
James Benlien wiped away tears during a Jury of Six session of Central Berkshire District Court as Judge Charles W. Groce III weighed whether he would accept a plea deal between the Berkshire District Attorney's Office and Benlien's lawyer, Leonard H. Cohen, that would keep Benlien out of jail.
"We've already lost our mother. I don't want to lose another parent," the defendant's 23-year-old daughter, Amanda Benlien, tearfully told the court. "I don't know what we would do without him."
Amanda Benlien also had been in the vehicle on the morning of Nov. 27, 2011, when her mother, 42-year-old Christine Benlien, stepped out of the family's Infiniti as James Benlien drove them home from a local bar, according to a police report. The couple was allegedly arguing.
Christine Benlien suffered a fatal head injury and was rushed to Berkshire Medical Center where she later died that morning. The defendant was unaware that his wife had been injured, according to his attorney.
Amanda Benlien also got out of the moving car, which had slowed down but didn't stop. She suffered abrasions to her knees and left elbow.
James Benlien continued driving the short distance to their home on Crane Avenue.
Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Daniel Hespeler told the court that James Benlien had been drinking that night and had admitted to ingesting drugs as well. James Benlien refused to tell police what kind of drugs they were.
Hespeler said when the Pittsfield Police spoke to Benlien at his home shortly after the accident, he smelled of alcohol, was unsteady on his feet and had slurred speech and glassy eyes. Benlien refused to perform field sobriety tests.
Besides the drunken driving charge, Benlien was also originally charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving a death. A Berkshire grand jury later declined to indict Benlien on that charge, but did indict him on the drunken driving charge. The DA's Office kept the case in the district court and it was scheduled for trial on Wednesday.
When presented with the plea agreement, the judge sighed heavily, shook his head slowly back and forth and told Benlien that he personally wouldn't have left even "his worst enemy" in a similar situation as the defendant left his wife that morning.
Judge Groce called Benlien's actions "clearly immoral" but added that the court dealt with legality, not morality, and that the defendant couldn't be sentenced for uncharged acts.
He sentenced Benlien in line with the plea deal: a two-year suspended sentence at the Berkshire Jail & House of Corrections. The sentence is suspended for two years during which time Benlien must complete a 14 day in-house substance abuse treatment program and remain drug- and alcohol-free with random testing, among other requirements. He will also lose his driver's license for two years.
If Benlien fails to abide by these requirements, he can be sentenced to the two years in jail.
Cohen said his client has had clean drug screens during the entire pendency of the case. Benlien was required to report to the probation department by court order while out on $2,500 cash bail.
Benlien has a previous drunken driving conviction from 1989.
The judge told Benlien that it was "a cosmic understatement" that he had some "soul searching" to do.
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