A hole will always remain in the hearts of Rawand Hirezi's family. The 23-year-old Clifton woman was killed a year ago in a car crash caused by a woman driving the wrong way on Interstate 66.
But for the next two decades, the woman responsible, Christina Peele, now 30, will be behind bars and off the roads. She was sentenced Friday, June 15 in Fairfax County Circuit Court to 15 years in prison — a punishment which will run consecutively to the five years incarceration she already received in Warren County for another offense.
"Ultimately, what you did on that night was equivalent to taking a gun, putting one bullet in the chamber and rolling it," said Judge Stanley Klein to Peele. "Except you didn't point it at your own head; you pointed it down I-66. And it's as close to second-degree murder as you can come."
On March 31, 2006, a bright future awaited Hirezi. She was part of a warm and loving family, had lots of friends, liked to sing and found fulfillment volunteering to help poor and troubled children. In just two months, she'd celebrate both her birthday and her graduation from George Mason University. She'd have a degree in criminal justice, en route to someday becoming a lawyer.
But someday never came for Hirezi. Instead, in the early-morning hours of April 1, 2006, her life was cut short by Peele, of Front Royal, who left a newborn daughter at home and drove to Washington, D.C., with her brother to score some drugs for herself. Then, she got high, got behind the wheel again and headed back on Interstate 66 west.
Hirezi and her boyfriend, GMU student Hootan Moeirzadeh, were also on the road that night. They were on their way home in a Honda Civic after an evening in Georgetown. They, too, were on I-66 west, with Hirezi asleep in the passenger side and Moeirzadeh at the wheel.
AT PEELE’S three-day jury trial, March 26-28, Fairfax County Police Officer Patrick Nolan described what happened next. He testified that, on April 1, 2006, just after 2 a.m., he was also driving on I-66 west when, near the Nutley Street exit, he saw brake lights and slowing vehicles. "I realized there was a green, Ford Explorer facing the wrong direction and there must have been an accident," said Nolan.
He stopped to investigate and asked the Explorer's driver — later identified as Peele — if there were any injuries. But, said Nolan, "She didn't respond. She just stared ahead and then drove off eastbound in the westbound lanes." He notified the State Patrol about her and, Peele drove 3.1 miles the wrong way, with her headlights off.
In court, witnesses testified that, near the Vienna-Fairfax-GMU Metro Station, they saw Peele’s SUV first traveling eastbound on the left shoulder and then pulling out into the oncoming traffic. Moeirzadeh saw it, too, and headed toward the left shoulder to avoid it. But the Explorer slammed into the Civic, killing Hirezi instantly.
Afterward, Peele refused to take a blood test and police later had to subpoena her medical records from the hospital to learn that PCP was in her system that night. So she wasn't immediately arrested and, instead, made a run for the border.
Officer Kevin Biggs of the City of Buffalo, N.Y., Police Department, testified that, on May 4, he was dispatched to the U.S./Canadian border between Buffalo and Ontario to pick up Peele. Federal customs agents had detained her, and he took her to a police holding center. Biggs said she had her two children with her (she also has a daughter, 5). He said she told him "she was going to Canada because of a manslaughter charge."
After deliberating 3 1/2 hours, the jury found Peele guilty of aggravated, involuntary manslaughter. Only then were the jurors allowed to hear that she had three prior felony convictions — for grand larceny, distribution of a controlled substance (ecstasy) and possession of marijuana — and that she was on probation at the time of the crash.
The jury recommended Peele serve 15 years in prison and, last Friday, June 15, she returned to court for sentencing. While discussing her pre-sentencing report, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kelly Pearson, who had prosecuted Peele, noted that, in Prince George's County, Md. Peele had previously been charged with 10 counts, including assault with intent to murder.
Testifying on Peele's behalf was Jon Phillips, her fiancé and father of her two girls. He said they "so regret" Hirezi's death. "Christina wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for her brother asking her to take him somewhere," he said. "She's a kind, loving person and we love each other and plan to get married."
Peele wept as Phillips spoke. He said she was at a "turning point" when the crash occurred. He also noted that her brother had died in November from "complications of a gunshot wound and an accident."
In her sentencing argument to Judge Klein, Pearson said, "This isn't just a crime, it's a tragedy, because [Hirezi] possessed so much promise and her life was taken at such a young age." Calling 15 years an appropriate punishment, she said, "This defendant has a simply horrendous record. She can't stay out of trouble because she can't say no to drugs."
Pearson stressed that, because of her criminal record, Peele had already received every kind of service and probation possible, and probation obviously doesn't work for her, nor protect the community from her actions. "What does protect the community from this happening again is 15 years in a state penitentiary. So the Commonwealth is asking the court to impose all 15 years the jury recommended."
Defense attorney David Downes said what the jury didn't hear was that, from ages 6-13, his client was sexually abused. "When she was 13, her grandmother's house was raided for drugs, and [Peele] went into foster care until age 18," he said. "Her father spent time in jail and her mother was a schizophrenic and a drug abuser. And she's bipolar and manic-depressive."
Downes asked Klein to suspend five of the 15 years because, on April 3, a circuit court judge in Warren County had revoked the balance of Peele's probation — five years — that she'd previously received for her ecstasy-distribution conviction. Downes also contended that, if Peele were on probation, it would provide "encouragement for her to behave" when she's released from prison.
Peele didn't speak prior to sentencing because, at the outset, she'd given the judge a lengthy, handwritten letter detailing her thoughts on the matter. Then, with Hirezi's parents, brother and several friends present in the front row of the courtroom — as they'd been throughout the entire trial — Klein explained the reasoning behind the sentence he was about to pronounce.
"Miss Peele, you're eloquent in your letter about the effect this will have on your daughters and Mr. Phillips — and they're innocent victims," said the judge. "But it is what you decided to do, on the night in question, that put them in this position. There were a number of warning signs that you chose not to heed."
After recounting Peele’s earlier convictions and run-ins with the law, Klein said the jury speaks for the community and, in the past, he's modified sentence recommendations when warranted. But in this case, said Klein, Peele's actions were tantamount to second-degree murder and their tragic result was irrevocable.
"I believe you're remorseful," he said. "But the consequences of what you've done can't be changed or suspended. There's a young lady who's never coming back because she's dead — because of what you did."
Calling the jury's recommendation "just," Klein then sentenced Peele to 15 years in prison, plus two years of additional, suspended time, and three years post-release supervision. Added to the five years she received from Warren County, that's a total of 20 years.
Afterward, Hassina Mohmand, a close friend of Hirezi's, said the judge "did a very good job. He gave [Peele] a fair amount of time and gave a good explanation of why she deserves this sentence. There's no denying what she did."
Hirezi's father, Manuel, said it's "very tough," coping with her loss. And while the family was glad to see justice done, he said it still "won't bring my daughter back."