Judge sentences Valerie Bray to one year of jail in death of local runner Cameron Bean

Valerie Bray talks in attorney Bill Speak's office Friday, January 27, 2017.

A judge Thursday sentenced a 60-year-old Chattanooga woman to one year in the county jail, followed by three years of probation, in a 2015 fatal hit-and-run case that attracted national attention.

Valerie Bray will return May 8 to Hamilton County Criminal Court to tell Judge Tom Greenholtz when she plans to report to Silverdale Correctional Facility. She will remain out on bond in the meantime.

"It was an incredibly difficult case for both the defense and the prosecution," her defense attorney, Bill Speek, said afterward. "We understand the difficulty the judge had in making this decision where you are sentencing somebody for the death of another person. Valerie has continued to express remorse and sorrow for the tragedy she caused, but is looking forward to getting this chapter in her life behind her and is appreciative of all the support people showed for her."

Prosecutors declined to comment on the outcome, as did family members of Bray's victim, 28-year-old runner Cameron Bean. But Executive Assistant Attorney General Lance Pope said Bray swerved across the center line on Moccasin Bend Road on Sept. 19, 2015, traveled on the wrong side for 571 feet, and struck Bean from behind. Instead of stopping to render aid, Bray drove to her workplace at the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, where she told officers the sun was in her eyes and that she thought she hit a deer.

Bray, who pleaded guilty in December to criminally negligent homicide and leaving the scene of an accident, took the witness stand during her sentencing hearing in February and said she did stop her car after the accident. With glass in her eyes and hair, disoriented and panicked, she checked the front, didn't see any animal, and continued on.

But Greenholtz said Thursday he first heard that testimony in February and that he was at a loss.

"If you actually did stop, I don't understand how you could have missed Cameron Bean's body," he said.

Greenholtz referenced the state's evidence: A couple biking past the scene of the accident minutes later spotted one of Bean's shoes in the middle of the road, and then easily spotted his body on the roadside. Plus, he said, there was a shoeprint on the front bumper of her car. And dashcam footage from responding officers showed the weather was clear, not bright as Bray described.

"The court really wonders whether you got out of the car," Greenholtz said. "And the court does not believe your statement that the sun was in your eyes at the time the court believes that was an effort to distance yourself from the harm you caused, from the responsibility."

These were relevant meditations since a judge must weigh all the evidence, evaluate a person's background, their character, and their remorse, and then decide if a person is a favorable candidate for an alternative sentence outside of state prison.

Greenholtz said Bray had five misdemeanor convictions in her past, but the last one was about 25 years ago. She had reformed her life and gained steady employment as a nurse at Moccasin Bend, working with some of society's most vulnerable citizens. And she expressed remorse for the harm she caused Bean's family, as did many of the character witnesses her attorneys called.

"The court doesn't believe you acted with any kind of malice," Greenholtz said. "And so the court does believe an alternative sentence to the Tennessee Department of Correction is appropriate."

Because Bray is considered a range-one offender, and therefore eligible for a lower punishment, Greenholtz sentenced her to two years for both class E felonies. Then he ordered split confinement, where a person serves a portion of their sentence in jail and the rest on probation.

A different Criminal Court judge, Barry Steelman, ordered a very similar outcome in a 2012 case in which a 57-year-old woman ran over a moped driver in St. Elmo and kept driving. The moped driver, David Bruce, died and Betty Mundy hit another vehicle a short ways down the road before striking a telephone pole, prosecutors said.

Mundy also had a minimal history, was considered a range-one offender, and qualified for an alternative sentence.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at [email protected] or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.