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Jury sentences Hilburn to 13 years in Officer Freeto's death

FORT WORTH -- After days of emotional testimony, Samuel Lee Hilburn was sentenced Friday to 13 years in prison for killing Fort Worth police officer Dwayne Freeto by rear-ending his squad car and trapping the officer inside the burning vehicle.

The Tarrant County jury of six men and six women convicted Hilburn, who was legally drunk at the time of the crash, of intoxication manslaughter Thursday. They deliberated two hours and 40 minutes Friday afternoon before the sentence was imposed in a courtroom packed with relatives of Hilburn and Freeto and nearly a dozen Fort Worth police officers.

Just after state District Judge Elizabeth Berry imposed the sentence, Freeto's mother, Linda Freeto, delivered a heart-wrenching statement in which she mourned the loss of her son but forgave the 22-year-old man whose reckless actions caused his Dec. 17, 2006, death.

"Samuel, this week you've become more than just a face on TV whose actions killed my son," she said. "My family has prayed for you and your family since the day of the accident. Please know that you'll always be in my heart and prayers. This day doesn't close the book. It starts a new chapter.

"And the first line of my new chapter is, 'I forgive you, Samuel,'"

In response, Hilburn quietly said "I'm sorry and thank you" before he was led back to a holding cell in Criminal District Court No. 3.

After changing from a dark suit into a green jail jumpsuit, Hilburn was allowed to return to the courtroom to visit with relatives, including his mother, grandmother, wife and 17-week-old son.

With bailiffs surrounding him, Hilburn tried to soothe his crying son as his wife, Lauren Coffman, held the baby close to him.

"Hey, how you doing? Don't cry," Hilburn said, smiling at his son.

Afterward, Hilburn's family left the courtroom crying. Coffman and Hilburn's godmother, Ermalinda Claudio, said they weren't happy with Hilburn's prison term but were touched by Linda Freeto's forgiveness.

"That was what he wanted the most -- just to be forgiven," Coffman said.

Claudio added, "We love him and want him here, but [the Freetos] no longer have their son. The forgiveness was a good outcome."

After Linda Freeto's statement, the family declined to comment further. However, Freeto's widow, Karen, and the officer's father, the Rev. Carl Freeto, testified Thursday during Hilburn's sentencing hearing. All three relatives stressed Freeto's public service and how much he would be missed. Questioned by Hilburn's attorney, Okey Akpom, Karen and Carl Freeto also said they could forgive Hilburn.

Prosecutors Richard Alpert and Mark Thielman, who had asked jurors for the maximum 20-year sentence, said they were satisfied with the sentence.

"We asked for more, but we understand that it was a difficult decision and we appreciate the effort given to arrive at that verdict," Alpert said.

Because jurors found that Hilburn used his Lexus as a deadly weapon, Hilburn will have to serve at least half his sentence before being eligible for parole. Akpom said he has advised his client to appeal the verdict but Hilburn has said he does not want to appeal.

In closing arguments, Akpom and co-counsel Michael Igwe asked the jury for mercy, pointing out that Hilburn is a young man with no serious legal problems in the past. They cited the testimony of 11 friends and relatives who said that Hilburn has turned his life around since the crash. They suggested that he could speak to other young people about drunken driving if he were granted probation.

Alpert and Thielman disagreed. They contended that Hilburn still denied responsibility for Freeto's death. They pointed to Hilburn's own testimony Friday in which he denied being intoxicated or driving recklessly at 97 miles per hour the night that Freeto was killed. And they said his history of offenses including speeding, driving without a license and consuming alcohol as a minor made it unlikely that he would follow probation rules.

Susan Bragg, director of the North Texas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said Hilburn should have gotten the maximum sentence for driving with a blood alcohol level of .20, 2 1/2 times the legal limit.

While not criticizing the jury's decision, Bragg said she wished that Hilburn could have been sentenced under a new law passed after his death.

Alpert lobbied for that law, which allows sentences up to life in prison for drunken drivers convicted of killing police officers, firefighters or other emergency personnel. The law is named for Freeto and Darren Medlin, a Grapevine officer killed by a drunken driver.

"The law recognizes firemen, police and emergency medical technicians who have no choice but to put themselves in harm's way deserved extra protection,” Alpert said.

Freeto had stopped to help a stranded motorist with a flat tire on Interstate 35 when the crash occurred. After the trial, some jurors told Alpert and Akpom that they had sympathy for both families and intended to write them letters.

"Some of them felt sorry for Sammy and wanted to write him letters of encouragement," Akpom said.