Over three days in court, musician Carlos Bertonatti tried everything to persuade a judge to go easy on him.
His sister and a pal told the court how Bertonatti saved their lives. A top Latin music executive testified that the Key Biscayne man had the makings of a bona fide pop star — earnings that could help pay restitution to the widow and daughter of the man Bertonatti killed.
His brother even admitted to using Bertonatti’s identity to rack up dozens of traffic tickets, an effort to soften the effect of the musician’s awful traffic history.
But in the end, the facts of the crime were too damning: Drunk after a night of partying, Bertonatti, 32, plowed his car into cyclist Christophe LeCanne on the Rickenbacker Causeway, dragging the man’s crumpled bicycle for more than two miles before the police caught up with him.
So Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bronwyn Miller — following the state’s sentencing guidelines — sent Bertonatti to prison for 12 years.
“You are a very young man. You have a future,” Miller told him. “I truly hope you will keep your commitment to the LeCanne family.”
Miller quoted from a letter sent by the dead man’s relatives: “Mr. LeCanne was nice, happy and full of life. No morning will ever be perfect again. Pain and sadness is the new way of life for the LeCanne family.”
Thursday’s sentence capped a roller-coaster sentencing hearing in a highly publicized case that was closely watched by Miami’s avid cycling community.
Miami-Dade prosecutor Warren Eth said the sentence was “very just.”
“It sends a very clear message to the community: If you drink and drive, you will get caught and you will ruin lives,” Eth said.
After the sentence, the defendant’s mother wailed and his brother and sister sobbed, too stunned to move from their seats for five minutes as Bertonatti was handcuffed, led into the bowels of the courthouse and off to jail. Miami actress Arlene Tur, who says she is Bertonatti’s wife, cried in the back row.
Bertonatti’s defense lawyer, Roberto Pertierra, bristled at the sentence.
“Others in this courthouse get four to five years for this crime and Carlos gets 12. I find it patently unfair,” Pertierra told reporters. “I don’t understand the court’s ruling. We will be appealing.”
After his release from prison, Bertonatti must also serve two years of house arrest, followed by eight years of probation. He must also speak on a victim-impact panel and complete 100 hours of community service, the judge said.
Without a plea deal, Bertonatti pleaded guilty in February to DUI manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident involving a death and resisting arrest without violence.
Under Florida sentencing guidelines, Bertonatti faced between 11.56 and 37 years in prison. His lawyers had been pushing for the state’s minimum mandatory sentence of four years behind bars.
In January 2010, Bertonatti had been drinking at Club Space in downtown Miami before driving his Volkswagen Jetta onto the Rickenbacker Causeway. On the Bear Cut Bridge, just past 8 a.m., he slammed into LeCanne, who was enjoying a morning ride overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Bertonatti’s blood-alcohol level was 0.122, well over the legal limit, authorities said. Miami-Dade Officer Mark Slimak, a DUI specialist, testified that Bertonatti refused to give a blood sample, and accused him of lying about the cyclist’s death.
The crash outraged Miami cyclists, who called for increased safety along the causeway. In February 2012, another cyclist, Aaron Cohen, was hit and killed on the same route — that driver, charged only with leaving the scene of an accident, was sentenced to almost two years behind bars.
LeCanne’s family from France did not attend this week’s sentencing, although they were in court when Bertonatti pleaded guilty in February to DUI manslaughter and other charges.
Prosecutors this week nevertheless played a slide show of photos of LeCanne with his young daughter, Marine.
“Marine will grow up without a father. That fact makes my heart bleed,” Bertonatti told the judge on Tuesday. “The thought chews away at me every single day and I know it’s a thought that will never, ever go away.”
In Bertonatti’s case, prosecutors were asking for 18 years in prison, citing the brutality of the crash and Bertonatti’s horrendous traffic history: 46 citations over the years.
Bertonatti’s defense, however, tried to call Miguel Bertonatti, who told lawyers he had been using his brother’s identity for years to rack up dozens of tickets. Carlos Bertonatti admitted in court that he was trying to protect his brother, at one point pleading guilty for the man’s speeding incident that took place just days before LeCanne’s death.
But because Miguel Bertonatti could possibly face criminal charges, the judge insisted he obtain a lawyer and a mental-health evaluation. Eventually, on Wednesday, Miguel Bertonatti finally took the stand — but repeatedly invoked his right to remain silent.
Still, Carlos Bertonatti had plenty of supporters willing to testify.
During the hearing, his sister spoke of how he comforted her after she drunkenly jumped off a balcony at age 14. One buddy also told the court how Bertonatti applied pressure to a serious knife wound after a fight, saving his life.
Sony music executive Jorge Mejila testified that the company signed him to write songs and eventually release an album. He even suggested that the DUI experience might enhance the quality of Bertonatti’s music, were he not behind bars.
“Songs are products of people’s lives and experiences are intangible. You can’t really manufacture that,” Mejila said.
Prosecutor Eth was incredulous, saying Bertonatti could indeed continue writing songs — from prison.
“Ever heard of Johnny Cash, Live at Folsom Prison?” Eth asked.