WILKES-BARRE — Tyler Duda, the teenager accused of causing a Nanticoke pedestrian’s death in a July 5 crash, admitted to homicide by vehicle and other charges Monday afternoon before Luzerne County Juvenile Court Judge William Amesbury.
Duda, now 17, was 16 at the time of the crash that killed Nickolas Zurilla, dismembering the 59-year-old after striking him with an SUV that police say was moving faster than 70 mph on a street posted for just 25 mph.
“I just want to say I’m really sorry. There is nothing I can do to fix it,” the teen said in a deep, quiet voice as he turned to face Zurilla’s sobbing family members sitting in the front row of Amesbury’s courtroom in the Penn Place building.
Duda then pledged to live a better life in recognition of the one he claimed.
“I’m sorry,” he said, before turning back to face Amesbury.
Duda’s admission — it is not called a guilty plea in juvenile court — will be followed on Friday morning by a disposition, in which Amesbury decides the form of rehabilitation to which Duda will be assigned.
Monday’s proceeding came a little more than two weeks after county Judge Lesa S. Gelb ruled that Duda’s case should be moved from the criminal system to juvenile court.
Duda could have faced 20 years or more in prison had his case remained in the adult criminal system.
Wherever Amesbury decides to send Duda for treatment, the teen can only be held until he turns 21 in November 2017. Amesbury will be required to review his progress at least every six months until then, and has the authority to release Duda sooner if he deems treatment has been successful.
Zurilla’s family members did not address the court personally, but through a statement read aloud by Assistant District Attorney Mamie Phillips.
“There is no closure for our family now, and no justice for Nickolas,” the statement read.
Duda was accused of taking his mother’s 2013 Ford Edge without her knowledge and was out joy riding with Donald Kinney Jr., 16, in Nanticoke on the way to visit a female friend.
The girl Duda and Kinney were en route to visit told police about a phone call she said she had with Duda while he was driving that night.
While talking to Duda, the girl told police, she heard Kinney tell Duda to “slow down,” and then heard the crash that sent Zurilla through the Ford’s windshield and knocked Kinney unconscious.
A state police reconstruction of the crash alleges Duda was traveling in excess of 70 mph when he struck Zurilla, arrest papers say. The speed limit on West Union Street is 25 mph.
Zurilla had been sitting on the porch of his neighbor, Paul Murphy, at 341 W. Union St. As Murphy was about to enter his house, Zurilla was crossing the street and said in a loud voice, “This car is going to hit me,” according to arrest papers.
Zurilla was dismembered in the collision. Nanticoke Police Chief William Shultz said last year he had never seen such a gruesome death in his 40 years of police work.
Duda tested clean for alcohol or drugs, which Gelb noted in her opinion.
But investigators have said Duda did not have any driving experience. He was, by his own admission Monday, driving without a license.
Initially having pleaded not guilty, Duda’s defense sought to have the case “decertified,” or moved to juvenile court. A two-day hearing on that request was held in April. It featured appearances by f experts for both sides, with Duda’s mental health and behavioral issues a key focus for both.
Duda was represented by Luzerne County First Assistant Public Defender Demetrius Fannick and Public Defender Cheryl A. Sobeski-Reedy. The prosecution was represented by Phillips and ADA Stephen Lentz.
Duda’s lawyers and their witnesses said the juvenile justice system will provide treatment, rehabilitation and supervision for which Duda is a proper candidate because of his age, mental capacity, maturity level and adolescent decision-making abilities.
Duda “is and continues to be a danger” to the community, and the vehicular homicide suspect’s case properly belongs in the Luzerne County Court system, prosecutors argued.
On May 3, Gelb ruled that moving the case to juvenile court would better serve the public interest than proceeding with an adult criminal case. She cited testimony by psychiatrist Richard E. Fischbein last month that Duda “is capable of being rehabilitated before he turns 21,” and that “in the adult system, (Duda) would not receive the therapy necessary and would not ever become a productive member of society.”
Prosecutors dropped a third-degree murder charge in the case in exchange for Duda’s admission to homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter, accidents caused by a person without a license and traffic offenses.
Now it will fall to Amesbury to decide how best to provide Duda with the treatment Gelb and the defense believes he needs.
One of the questions before the court is which facility to select. The DA’s office recommended North Central Secure Treatment in Danville, Phillips said. Sobeski-Reedy said probation officials recommended Alternative Rehabilitation Communities in York.
Amesbury asked the teen to explain what his admission meant.
“That I am accepting responsibility for the charges,” Duda said.
Duda’s mother, Lori, stood at her son’s side as he appeared before the judge. Amesbury asked her if she believed he understood what he was acknowledging, and whether she believed this course of action was best for him.
“I do,” Lori Duda said.
The judge also addressed Zurilla’s family, suggesting that no words could fill the emptiness left in their lives, but saying the process is designed to help Duda turn his life around and living to honor their loved one’s memory.
“He still has a lot of work to do,” Sobeski-Reedy said, acknowledging that lack of impulse control is a major factor for Duda to overcome.
The Zurilla family, in their statement, took a much different view.
“How can one be rehabilitated when it was clear to the court Mr. Duda was not receptive to rehabilitation up to and after the accident,” they asked. “It was said that he was recently willing to accept rehabilitation — why? Why now? Is it because the thought of being locked away in an adult correctional facility was a very likely possibility for him?”
As well, they expressed outrage that Zurilla’s death seemed to receive less attention than Duda’s mental-health issues.
“As a family,we feel the wrongful death of Nickolas was barely discussed or touched upon during the time in court. Why weren’t the pictures from the night of the accident shown?” they asked.
“Why was the only thing that seemed important during the recent two days in court was if Mr. Duda was able to be rehabilitated for his crime?”