Rabah Samara sat still in the center of the courtroom’s second row Monday, dressed well as he waited his turn, watching a judge tick through the hearings of several other men accused of driving while impaired.
Samara, 37, was familiar with these proceedings. He first faced a driving while impaired charge in 2003, when he was accused of being drunk when he took the wheel of a Cadillac Escalade that had just hit and killed Stephen Gates, a Tar Heel Sports Network reporter, and driving away.
A decade later, he was on his fourth DWI charge, and he pleaded guilty Monday, resulting in his third conviction. Under state law, Samara, who lives in Cary, could lose his license for good.
The woman in the first row knew the protocol well, too. She has attended dozens of Samara’s court hearings for more than a decade.
Pat Gates is neither his friend nor family. She is Stephen Gates’ mother, and this day was just another stop in the mission she’s taken on.
She doesn’t blame Samara for her son’s death, but she wants to see his life changed for the better. She waited on a court bench Monday to see whether it had.
Samara and Gates’ lives intersected early on Oct. 4, 2003. Samara, then 26, was sleeping drunk in the passenger seat of the Escalade while a woman named Emily Caveness drove him and two others from Durham to Raleigh, according to trial testimony.
Stephen Gates, then 27, knelt beside Interstate 40, his Saturn’s wheels protruding a few inches into the acceleration lane as he tried to change a tire.
The Escalade struck with such force that it ripped the Saturn’s door from its hinges. Samara testified that as the four occupants yelled, he persuaded Caveness – who was letting go of the wheel – to pull the car over.
As Samara got out, a couple who had followed them down the road yelled for their attention, warning Samara that someone had been hit, one of the witnesses testified. At trial, Samara said he misunderstood them; he looked at the mangled front of the SUV, got behind the wheel and drove away.
A short distance from his home in Raleigh, Samara stopped at a well-lit gas station.
A gap in North Carolina’s laws ensured that neither driver was charged with hit-and-run; Caveness didn’t drive away, and Samara hadn’t been driving during the wreck. That law was changed as a result, requiring passengers to stay on the scene of accidents.
Caveness made a deal with prosecutors that let her plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to report an accident in exchange for testifying at Samara’s trial, The News & Observer reported. Samara was convicted of DWI, his first.
On Monday, Assistant District Attorney Rashad Hauter argued that Samara’s involvement in the fatal wreck, along with a continued record of intoxicated driving charges, should be a factor in his sentencing. Duncan McMillan, Samara’s defense attorney, argued that his client had no responsibility for the 2003 death.
“He was made a scapegoat in that case,” McMillan said. “He had no control over that. He wasn’t driving.”
Pat Gates watched the trial from the first row, occasionally dabbing at tears as the prosecutor recounted the night of her son’s death. She has driven from Greensboro for most of Samara’s court hearings since that night in 2003.
Samara has been charged four times with driving while impaired since the night of Gates’ death. One of those charges was dismissed; he was found guilty of the most recent charge, from March 2013.
Monday’s case, dating to Dec. 20 of last year, was the result of a checkpoint stop in Cary. An officer testified that the smell of alcohol wafted up from Samara’s car, and he blew a 0.1 on a blood-alcohol test, above the legal limit of .08.
Samara’s attorney told the court that Samara had voluntarily worn a bracelet that showed he hadn’t drunk for a month over the summer, which was as long as he could afford the testing service. Samara hasn’t had alcohol since December, McMillan claimed.
Samara was sentenced Monday as a Level II offender, losing his license, entering active probation for three years, paying a $1,000 fine and serving 14 days in jail, which he can do on weekends.
After the hearing, Samara sat with his head in his hands for several minutes as he awaited his probation officer. He declined to comment.
Outside the courtroom, Pat Gates wrestled with her emotions, thinking back to a brief conversation she had with Samara a decade ago.
“Promise me you’ll live a life worthy of the one that was taken,” she recalls saying.
She’s unsure, she said, whether to believe that Samara will change like she wants. She’s still waiting for a proper apology, she said.
“How about saying, ‘I’m sorry for what I did,’ not ‘I’m sorry for your loss?’ ” she said.
“We forgive him, but I’m wondering – is he able to forgive himself?”