HARTFORD, Conn. -- Teon Hall turned Monday and looked at Michael Pajak, the man who killed his father last year when he drove a pick-up truck off I-91 into his patrol car.
"My father used to tell us: 'Life is about choices that you've made,'" Hall said of Trooper 1st Class Kenneth Hall as the men locked eyes in Superior Court. "I hope you've realized what you've done."
Pajak nodded slightly. "I'm sorry," he said softly.
About an hour later, Pajak, 33, of Enfield, was sentenced to 11 years in prison, followed by four years of special parole. He had pleaded no contest in June to first-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault with a motor vehicle.
Judge David P. Gold also urged the commissioner of the state Department Motor Vehicles to "carefully consider whether or not the defendant should be entitled to operate a motor vehicle."
Hall's family and fellow state troopers said they were satisfied with the sentence, even though Hartford State's Attorney Gail Hardy had recommended 14 years in prison. Gold spent about a half hour explaining why he sent Pajak to prison for a shorter period of time: The crash was not intentional, there wasn't enough evidence that Pajak had ingested drugs the day of the collision, and a 14-year sentence wouldn't have been consistent with those in similar cases.
"I think the judge was very fair," said Tara Williams, Trooper Hall's daughter. "I think he really looked at everything in the case."
"Eleven years, I'm very happy with that," said Hall's wife, Sheila Hall, outside the courthouse. "Couldn't ask for a better sentence."
Andrew Matthews, state police union president, said the judge "made a rational decision within the parameters of the law." Matthews, a lawyer, said he'd like to push for stiffer penalties in cases involving the death of police officers.
More than 50 people crammed into the courtroom for the sentencing. The crowd included Carol Bagshaw, whose husband, Trooper Russell Bagshaw, was fatally shot on the job in 1991, and town officials from Enfield, where the crash happened.
On Sept. 2, 2010, a Dodge Ram pickup driven by Pajak veered off I-91 in Enfield into Hall's patrol car, which was parked at the side of the highway. Hall, who was sitting in the police car, had pulled over a truck that had been hauling a trailer.
The Ram crushed the car and was thrown to the left, possibly when it hit the trailer. It slid down the highway on its driver's side. Pajak and his passenger, Jenny Benvenuto, were injured.
Police said the Ram was traveling at least 87 mph when it struck Hall's patrol car, and that he had drugs in his urine. But other tests show that his blood had no drugs in it that day. The blood test is considered more reliable.
Pajak told police the crash happened when Benvenuto leaned over to give Pajak a hug. He also told them he took two hydrocodone pills, which the warrant refers to as opiates.
Benvenuto told police that Pajak snorted both cocaine and heroin the day of the crash, and that he was so high he had trouble keeping the truck on the road. She told police that she had to yank the steering wheel to keep the truck from hitting a guardrail. Pajak's friend, Jason Hicks, told police he had to do the same thing before he demanded to be let out.
Pajak has at least one conviction for driving under the influence on his record. His license has been suspended 10 times, although many of the suspensions were for failure to pay a ticket or show up in court.
The judge told Pajak, "It's just a matter of time before you did something like this. You were playing Russian Roulette every single time you got behind the wheel."
Gold also told Pajak that Hall's family probably had a hard time fitting his accomplishments on his gravestone. The 57-year-old served for 13 years in the U.S. Marines and was a state trooper for 22.
As for Pajak's, he said, "I don't know what someone would put on yours."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service