A Baltimore County judge on Thursday ordered one of two drivers charged in a crash that killed six construction workers on the inner loop of Interstate 695 to serve 1 ½ years in jail.

Circuit Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts sentenced Melachi Duane Darnell Brown, 21, of Windsor Mill, to 60 years, suspending all time but 1 ½ years in the Baltimore County Detention Center, plus three years’ supervised probation. He must perform 40 hours of community service, complete a victim-impact program and abstain from driving while he’s on supervision.

Brown had pleaded guilty to six counts of negligent vehicular manslaughter. He will not receive credit for the time he spent on home detention while awaiting trial toward his sentence.

Ballou-Watts largely adopted the plea agreement that the state had extended in the case, noting that his speeding and aggressive driving were contributing factors but not the primary cause of the crash. She also brought up his age, lack of prior criminal record and expression of remorse.

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Before she imposed the punishment, Ballou-Watts said she sometimes asks young people who appear before her a rhetorical question.

“What were you thinking?” Ballou-Watts said. “What in the world were you thinking?”

“To drive at that speed in an active construction zone,” she added, her voice trailing off.

Brown stood up and apologized to the families for his actions and stated that he’s a caring young man. He wiped back tears with tissues.

“I’ve been asking God for forgiveness,” he said. “I’m deeply sorry.”

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At about 12:30 p.m. on March 22, 2023, Lisa Adrienne Lea tried to move into the passing lane and hit Brown, prosecutors allege.

They were both driving more than 120 mph, prosecutors assert, five seconds before the crash. The speed limit is 55 mph.

Lea spun out, traveled through a more than 150-foot gap in the concrete barriers that separated the work zone from the rest of the highway, overturned multiple times and fatally struck the six construction workers, prosecutors reported.

First responders took Lea to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center with non-life-threatening injuries. Brown was not hurt and stayed on the scene. But he told investigators that he had been driving 60 mph.

The Maryland State Police identified the construction workers as Rolando Ruiz, 46, of Laurel; Carlos Orlando Villatoro Escobar, 43, of Frederick; Jose Armando Escobar, 52, of Frederick; Mahlon Simmons III, 31, of Union Bridge; Mahlon Simmons II, 52, of Union Bridge; and Sybil Lee DiMaggio, 46, of Glen Burnie.

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Troopers reported that Lea had bloodshot eyes and slurred speech. Prosecutors allege that she had prescription medications and cannabis in her system and told investigators that her vision went black, like during a seizure that she experienced five years earlier, and crashed.

At the time of impact, Lea was driving 108 mph, prosecutors allege. Brown was going 111 mph.

Assistant State’s Attorney Felise Kelly described the plea agreement that she extended in the case as probably the most unpopular in her career.

But Kelly said her role in the criminal justice system is not to do what other people want her to do. Instead, she said, it’s to act in way that she believes is fair and just in a case.

Even if the judge were to impose the maximum sentence in the case, she said, no amount of time would be commensurate to the lives of those lost in the crash.

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Kelly played dash camera video from a car on the highway that showed how Brown was driving moments before the crash. She passed up exhibits to the judge, including a diagram of the crime scene as well as pictures of the bodies of the six construction workers, some of whom were thrown onto the outer loop of I-695.

“Did he crash into anyone?” Kelly said. “No.”

But, she added, “Anyone who is participating in the incident is responsible in the incident.”

Intent, she said, is not an element of the crime. Knowledge, though, is a component, Kelly said.

Later, Kelly showed the judge pictures of the six construction workers in life. She shared a few words about each of them and then turned around and asked the approximately two dozen family members and friends who were in the courtroom to stand up.

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DiMaggio’s daughter, Nora, was one of four loved ones who addressed the court, in addition to those who wrote victim-impact statements.

“When I lost my mom, I lost everything,” she said. “Every day has been horrible without her.”

Her life, she said, has been shattered. She said she’s experienced panic attacks when she drives.

Jennifer Kafes, Brown’s attorney, asked the judge to consider allowing her client to serve his sentence on home detention. More than a dozen of his loved ones also sat in the courtroom in support.

Brown, she said, is a caring and compassionate person with a good heart who acts as a peacemaker. He did not want to subject the families to a prolonged trial and accepted responsibility for his actions, Kafes said.

“Melachi is extremely remorseful,” Kafes said. “He had no malice in his heart.”

Kafes said her client is not a bad person. He made an extremely poor decision, she said, and knows that there are consequences for it.

She empathized that her client was not asking for sympathy. He wants to prove that he’s learned from his mistake and does not pose a danger to society, Kafes said.

A Baltimore Banner analysis found that there were only 12 other crashes between 1980 and 2020 in work zones that resulted in more deaths in the United States.

Lea, 55, of Ednor Gardens-Lakeside, is charged with six counts of negligent manslaughter and related offenses. She’s set to appear back in court on May 8.

Ballou-Watts ordered Brown to immediately begin serving his sentence.

“Miss Kafes,” a woman asked, “Can I hug him before he goes?”

Kafes indicated to her that was not possible.

Sheriff’s deputies then handcuffed and escorted Brown out of the courtroom as the woman quietly sobbed.

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