STILLWATER — The woman who was sentenced to life plus 10 years in prison Tuesday for driving her car into a crowd at the 2015 Oklahoma State University homecoming parade, killing four spectators and injuring dozens of others, was described by her attorney as a “sacrificial lamb” for the state of mental health treatment in Oklahoma.
But Payne County District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas said the case against Adacia Avery Chambers, 26, was “not about mental illness” because “she was not insane at the time she did it.”
“It’s offensive to equate criminal defendants and their actions with a mental illness,” Thomas said. “Most mentally ill people don’t commit crimes, so I find it really offensive to equate mentally ill people with criminal actions.”
Chambers told the court Tuesday that she was having an episode of “severe psychosis” when the wreck occurred.
A jury trial for Chambers had been set to begin Tuesday morning on four counts of second-degree murder and 42 counts of assault and battery by means or force likely to produce death. But defense attorney Tony Coleman and Thomas announced that Chambers had agreed to plead no contest to all four murder counts and 39 of the assault charges, as the latter three counts were dismissed because of difficulty locating the victims.
Chambers was charged Nov. 4, 2015, for her role in the crash at Hall of Fame Avenue and Main Street in Stillwater during OSU’s Sea of Orange Homecoming Parade. The crash killed 65-year-old OSU employees Marvin and Bonnie Stone; 23-year-old University of Central Oklahoma graduate student Nikita Nakal; and 2-year-old Nash Lucas.
District Judge Stephen Kistler sentenced Chambers to four concurrent life terms for the murder convictions and 10 years for each of the 39 assault convictions, which are to run concurrently with each other but will be consecutive to the life sentence.
Chambers will be 73 years old when she can become eligible for parole.
In accepting the plea deal, Chambers said her prayers were with the victims and that she lamented her inability to change what occurred.
As Chambers’ plea does not admit guilt, Kistler said it cannot be used against her in any civil proceedings against her for damages connected with the crash. Leo and Sharon Schmitz, a married couple who were both seriously injured that day, have separate lawsuits pending against her.
Details of the crimes
Police reports state that Chambers said she was “going home forever” just before she crashed her car into an unmanned Stillwater Police Department motorcycle, traffic barricades and parade spectators just after 10:30 a.m. Oct. 24, 2015. Chambers also reportedly said she wanted to be “free” and felt suicidal at the time of the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the crash said Chambers accelerated from 54 mph to 59 mph in the seconds preceding impact. A blood test revealed that she had a 0.01 blood alcohol concentration at the time of the collision, which Coleman has pointed to when refuting initial claims by law enforcement that Chambers was under the influence of alcohol or drugs that day. The amount is far below 0.08, the point at which a person is considered under the influence in Oklahoma.
Chambers’ mental health
Coleman said during a news conference after the hearing that Chambers is essentially a “sacrificial lamb” for the state of mental health treatment in Oklahoma, telling reporters that “the system failed her” when she was subjected to inadequate care throughout her life before her arrest.
Thomas said after the hearing that Tuesday was the first opportunity the public had really had to hear directly from those who were affected by Chambers’ actions, which she said were intentional and purposeful.
Thomas said Chambers “cried for herself when she read her statement in court. She shed not a tear for one of the victims.”
But in his news conference, Coleman said it’s clear that the crash would not have happened had Chambers been able to receive proper treatment in advance. He also said his client was visibly upset at what she heard from the victims, and he emphasized that there is “clear evidence” that she has a mental illness.
“Our mental-health care system in the state of Oklahoma is broken,” he said. “It’s in bad shape, and something has to be done.”
Edmond-based Dr. Shawn Roberson, an expert witness retained by the defense, said his first evaluation of Chambers on Oct. 26, 2015, found that she was suffering from “acute psychosis.” He cited reports from both her family and jail staff about her impaired mental state. Since being placed on a regimen of antidepressant and antipsychotic medications in custody, he said, her condition has improved to the point where she can articulate what she wants to do with her case and understand the charges against her.
Chambers’ father, Floyd Chambers, said there aren’t enough words he can say to express remorse to the victims and their families.
“Some of them even said they didn’t want to hear sorry,” he said. “But I don’t know of any other word to use.”
He described multiple occasions in which his daughter went to mental-health facilities only to either receive a wrong diagnosis or be turned away because of a lack of money.
Floyd Chambers said he wouldn’t wish these circumstances on any parent, and he added that he wants others who have children in need of mental-health treatment to get help before they become involved in criminal proceedings.
Roberson told Kistler on Tuesday of his professional opinion that Chambers was legally competent to participate in the plea negotiations based on his most recent evaluation of her. When Roberson evaluated her soon after her arrest in 2015, he determined that she likely had a mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder.
However, an evaluation conducted at the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita about a month after Roberson’s initial evaluation indicated that Chambers was competent to stand trial. Coleman announced his intent last year to pursue a mental-health-based or insanity defense if Chambers’ case went before a jury.
Before Kistler accepted Chambers’ plea, he asked her multiple questions to gauge her ability to understand what she was doing. She told him the purpose of the hearing was “to plead no contest” to the charges.
In Oklahoma, a life sentence is considered to be 45 years, and state law requires that Chambers would have to serve at least 85 percent of her life sentence, or 38 years and three months, before she could become eligible for parole on the murder convictions.
But because the 10-year sentence on the assault convictions is consecutive, she will have to spend at least another eight years and six months in custody before being able to receive parole on those convictions. By that time, she would be 73 years old.
An Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman told the World that Chambers will be transported to the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud for assessment and reception before receiving her permanent facility assignment.
Victims speak out against Chambers
Once Chambers finished reciting her prepared statement in court, survivors of the Oct. 24, 2015, crash stood up one by one for more than five hours to read statements about the damage they said Chambers’ actions caused.
Many of the victims who addressed Chambers and Kistler expressed anger over their losses and emphasized repeatedly that they did not want Chambers to have the opportunity to hurt others again. They cried as they told positive stories of the people they loved, which have been overshadowed by constant reminders of what they said Chambers took from them.
Chambers sat silently as she listened to the statements, which Coleman later said was “painful” for his client, who is “extremely remorseful” for what happened. She wiped tears from her eyes multiple times when entering her pleas.
”Nash was the light of the house,” read a statement from the 2-year-old’s paternal grandparents, Brandon and Stephanie Lucas of Weatherford. “So many happy days have been lost. … Tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of precious memories are swept away.”
Thomas read the words of Nash’s maternal grandmother, Carie Strauch of Weatherford, who described the toddler as “the sweetest, happiest, most loving baby boy” and said she hasn’t had the heart to move his belongings that remain in her home.
”Every day, there are what-ifs. What if we had gotten to the parade a little earlier?” she wrote, later saying, “There is no punishment that is acceptable for the woman responsible for the murder of my sweet baby boy.”
Nakal’s boyfriend at the time, Bhardwaj Chintalapati, read statements written by him and her parents, who live in India. He described being with her when she died, which he said “haunts me to his day,” and he said the last photo he took of her was only a couple of minutes before she was hit.
”She was very brave and intelligent, and there was no one I loved more than her,” Nakal’s father, Prahaber Nakal, wrote. “Our family has been broken into pieces because of this impact, and our lives have been stagnant.”
One of Bonnie Stone’s sisters, Barbara Devie, wrote a statement before her own death last year in which she called Bonnie and Marvin Stone’s deaths the result of a “selfish act by a complete stranger.” She recalled memories she had of the couple, who dedicated their lives to service at OSU.
Teresa Edwards and her husband, Steve Edwards, were among those who provided victim impact statements Tuesday morning. In her statement, Teresa Edwards described Chambers’ actions as an “act of evil” and called it “the worst action a woman can do to her own fellow citizens.”