A Charlotte couple said they forgive the man who pleaded guilty Wednesday to causing the deaths of their 2-year-old boy and infant son.
Matthew Blair Deans, 29, was making his first appearance in Pender County Superior Court when he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter of an unborn child in the deaths of 2-year-old Gentry Dobbs Eddings III (Dobbs) and his infant brother, Reed Eddings, both of whom died following a wreck in Pender County on Saturday, May 23.
Deans’ plea came just two days after his indictment on the charges, which District Attorney Ben David said is rare for a defendant to do in the early stages of a case.
“I’ve never seen a defendant plead guilty at a first-appearance — without a plea deal — as charged. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, I just can’t think of it, and certainly not a case of this magnitude,” David said.
Members of the Eddings family were in attendance during an emotional hearing on Wednesday, including the parents of the two deceased children, Gentry Dobbs Eddings II and his wife, Hadley Eddings.
While standing next to prosecutors in the courtroom, the Charlotte couple expressed their remorse for the defendant and proclaimed their Christian faith is what allowed them to forgive Deans.
“While losing my children has been the most devastating thing of my entire life, I know without a doubt that they are in heaven,” Hadley Eddings said. “I know that you did not intend for this to happen…I forgive you completely. I want you to be able to have a good life. I don’t want this to be the end for you.”
Gentry Eddings II, a Charlotte pastor, said, “Mistakes were made that led us to this place. But, I want you to know that I sincerely forgive you, completely, for everything that’s happened. I have no grudge or ill will for you. We very much want your good. I forgive you completely because I’ve been forgiven, as well. I was a sinner in need of a savior. And Jesus has forgiven me.”
According to District Attorney Jason Smith, Deans was driving a box truck for a local seafood company the morning of the incident.
Deans was traveling back from a pick-up in the Sneads Ferry area about 12:18 p.m. when he rear-ended an SUV in the southbound lane of U.S. 17 near the intersection of Sloop Point Road. The collision set off a chain reaction, with two more vehicles hit. All three vehicles hit in the wreck were occupied by members of Eddings family, Smith said.
Deans reportedly failed to reduce speed at the intersection’s stop light, and hit the rear of the vehicle that occupied Gentry Eddings II while he was stopped at the light. The truck continued into a second vehicle occupied by Hadley Eddings and her son, Smith said. The vehicle was pushed into a third vehicle ahead of it, which carried the childrens’ grandparents.
“Deans admitted that he was looking down to eat a sandwich he had recently purchased. When he looked up he saw the stopped vehicles at the traffic signal, he locked the brakes but there was not enough time to stop,” Smith said.
Emergency crews extracted Dobbs, the Eddings’ toddler, from the vehicle. He was taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center but died on the way to the hospital, according to N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper R.D. Hendrickson.
Hadley Eddings — who was 37 weeks pregnant at the time of the wreck — was taken to the hospital, where she had an emergency Cesarean section, Hendrickson said. She and her newborn, Reed Eddings, were then transported to North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill, where the infant later died.
Investigators with highway patrol tried to recreate Deans’ day to determine the cause of the wreck. They determined he was texting while driving and found text messages that indicated he had purchased what he believed to be heroin from a dealer in Wilmington at about 2:45 a.m. the day of the incident, Smith said.
A blood test revealed traces of THC, which is found in marijuana, as well as fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl in Deans’ system, Smith said. But according to David, none of the substances found were enough to charge Deans with any impairment under current state laws.
However, recent state legislation will mark acetyl fentanyl on the state’s list of schedule I controlled substances – from which impairment can be charged – effective on Dec. 1, David said.
Factors that played into the wreck included distracted driving due to eating and texting while driving, as well as a lack of sleep before his shift at work, Smith said.
“A commercial vehicle operator has a special duty to operate his vehicle with heightened caution and care,” Smith said. “Deans’ collective actions prevented him from stopping his commercial vehicle before colliding with three stopped vehicles, thereby causing the deaths of two young boys.”
In a statement he gave to the court room after his plea, a remorseful Deans told the Eddings family he wanted to live a better life for their sons and their family.
“There’s not enough words to explain to you guys how sorry I am and if there was anything that I could do to trade places with them, it wouldn’t take me a second…my plans are to live a better life for you, your kids and your whole family,” Deans said.
Members of Deans’ family as well as his employers were also in the courtroom, according to Attorney Lawrence Shotwel, who represented Deans in the case.
Deans has maintained a steady job with the seafood company, Shotwell said. His employers wrote a letter to the court, which was presented to the judge during the hearing.
“I just can’t remember a first time I’ve come in for an arraignment and pleaded my client guilty as charged,” Shotwell said. “I can tell you…it was Matt’s desire to end the suffering…he told me ‘I put them through enough.’”
Superior Court Judge Phyllis Gorham sentenced Deans to 19-32 months in the N.C. Department of Corrections. He was ordered to serve three years of supervised probation upon his release from prison.
“The loss of Dobbs and Reed Eddings ripped the heart out of this community,” David said in a press conference after the plea. “This family is able to express [their compassion] because of their deep faith…they’ve been our strength. And that is so rare.
“It’s our deep regret that we’ll never get to know their sons. The world will never get to see them grow up to be men that I know they would be with a family like this. So, that’s the real loss today,” David said.
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