PANAMA CITY – A Bay County man who’d flipped his car while speeding around a stopped school bus and killed his girlfriend in the passenger seat has been sentenced to spend three decades in prison.
Christopher Steven Chambers, 47, was sentenced Friday to the maximum as a habitual offender. He was convicted earlier in the month for a high-speed crash in April 2016 that took the life of his 21-year-old passenger and mother of his child, Barbie Wright. Chambers was on drug-offender probation at the time of the fatal wreck and had only recently gotten out of custody for assaulting Wright, according to court records.
Before sentencing, Chambers’ mother, Debra McQuaig, pleaded for mercy. She conceded that her son has been incarcerated most of his life for drug-related activities. But she wept as she told the court that Chambers was attempting to turn his life around after his most recent brush with prison.
“He was clean of drugs, and that was his problem,” McQuaig said. “There was nothing he could do. When I went to visit him in the hospital, he didn’t even know Barbie was dead.”
Chambers, too, sobbed as his mother spoke. McQuaig told the court that he and Wright had their issues, but that all couples do. She concluded with an apology and begged for mercy.
However, Circuit Judge Brantley Clark Jr. was unmoved.
In his trial, prosecutors presented the case that Chambers sped around a line of cars stopped on April 8, 2016 in the 1900 block of Sherman Avenue as a school bus unloaded children. He’d been released earlier that day for dragging Wright — his girlfriend and mother of his young child — by the hair for about 100 feet and had been trying to locate work tools taken from his home while incarcerated.
As Chambers sped down Sherman Avenue, Wright was maintaining cell phone contact with the person believed to have the tools when they came upon the stopped school bus going between 70 and 80 mph, prosecutor Alyssa Yarbrough told the jury.
“He was driving at excessive speeds,” she said. “He was passing stopped cars and a school bus, ignoring the time of day. His only focus was getting down the road to get his personal items.”
Defense attorney Caren Bennett, however, argued that Chamber’s role in the crash was more benign. She conceded that he had been speeding before the crash, but said that a mechanical failure was what cost his passenger’s life.
“This was an accident,” Bennett told the jury earlier this month. “Just because someone dies, as sad as that is, doesn’t make it a crime. ... It’s just as likely he was trying to avoid an accident and his brakes went out.”
When authorities arrived at the trailer park on Sherman Avenue they found a small silver car overturned and “embedded around a utility pole.” It appeared to law enforcement that the driver had been driving at excessive speeds along the 35 mph stretch of road and crashed while avoiding a head-on collision with a school bus.
At the time of the wreck, Chambers not only had the assault pending against him, he was also on drug-offender probation for trafficking and manufacturing methamphetamine.