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British Columbia Convicted drunk driver apologizes to family of child she killed

A Delta woman convicted of causing the death of four-year-old Alexa Middelaer apologized to the family of the little girl in an emotional address to the court before she was sentenced.

Carol Berner, 58, sobbed and shook as she spoke Monday about the devastating effect of the death on her life and promised to try to earn the family's forgiveness.

"I know I am responsible for the death of your special little girl," said Ms. Berner, who is a grandmother. "I will live with that for the rest of my life."

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Ms. Berner said she was "so desperately sorry for what the Middelaers are going through."

The closely watched case has drawn national attention in light of new initiatives in Parliament to toughen penalties against drunk drivers.

Ms. Berner was found guilty three months ago in the crash that killed Alexa and injured her aunt. She was convicted of impaired driving causing death, dangerous driving causing death, impaired driving causing bodily harm and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.

Crown prosecutor Kimberly Wendel asked for concurrent sentences of three to five years in prison on each of the four counts. Ms. Berner's lawyer David Tarnow argued his client should not be put in jail.

Provincial Court Judge Peder Gulbransen is to release a written decision on sentencing on Friday.

On May 17, 2008, Ms. Berner, a single mother of three children, slammed into a parked car that then hit Alexa and her aunt.

She was travelling 91 km/h in a 50-km/h zone on a road with speed bumps. She lost control of the car as she sped over the bumps, then stepped on the gas instead of the brake. Alexa was standing by the road with her aunt, feeding a horse.

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During the 16-day trial, court heard that Ms. Berner told undercover police officers she had drunk three glasses of wine before getting behind the wheel.

She provided breath samples three hours after the crash of .06 per cent and .04 per cent.

Ms. Berner told the court she is haunted by nightmares and has panic attacks. She has been turned into a villain by her peers and is an outcast in her community.

She could not have a harsher punishment than knowing she caused a senseless death, she said.

Court heard Ms. Berner has been suicidal, was the victim of domestic violence and had been left homeless by a former partner who took her life savings. She currently relies on a food bank. She has no criminal record.

She started hyperventilating after her remarks and the courtroom was cleared. The sentencing hearing continued later without her.

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Earlier, both Alexa's family and Ms. Berner were wiping away tears as the little girl's parents and grandparents told the court about the impact of the death on their lives and on Alexa's 10-year-old brother Christian.

"Our family has changed too much," Christian said, in a statement read out in court by his mother. "We are not very happy any more." The youngster asked why Ms. Berner "made the choice to ruin" their family.

Alexa's aunt Daphne Johanson, who was seriously injured, said she suffered extensive disabilities that kept her in the hospital for four weeks and in a wheelchair for four months. All told, her recovery took 18 months.

She has returned to work as a clinical research assistant but continues to suffer chronic pain, fatigue and permanent disabilities.

"There is not a day or night I do not relive [the crash]" she said.

Alexa's grandfather John Middelaer told the court he had a severe heart attack and his wife, who is battling cancer, has suffered setbacks.

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Earlier during victim impact statements, Ms. Berner, sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom, looked at the floor as Alexa's mother Laurel repeatedly glanced at her and spoke.

"I don't know how a mother can begin to discuss the loss of her daughter," Ms. Middelaer said.

Outside the court, Alexa's parents said they had empathy for Ms. Berner, acknowledging she has faced difficulties in her life, but were skeptical about her expression of remorse.

"There are a lot of us who have had hard knocks, a lot of single moms out there who are doing a great job. So that is not an excuse," Laurel Middelaer said.

Although Ms. Berner described her conduct as a mistake, it is not, Ms. Middelaer said. "It is criminal behaviour."

Michael Middelaer, Alexa's father, noted that Ms. Berner fought the charges vigorously throughout the trial. "That is difficult for us to reconcile [with the apology]" he said.

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