A professional drag racer whose out-of-control car killed six spectators at a parade pleaded guilty Thursday to reduced charges, avoiding jail time and fines.
Troy Critchley, 38, an Australian now living in Texas, was sentenced to 18 months probation after pleading guilty to 28 misdemeanor charges of reckless assault in the accident, which also injured 22 people.
He was originally charged with vehicular homicide and aggravated assault, felony charges that could have sent him to prison and brought thousands of dollars in fines.
Critchley apologized in court to crash victims and their families, saying he took part in the car show to raise money for sick children, not to hurt anyone.
His dragster spun out of control and smashed into spectators during a fundraising festival in Selmer, a small town 80 miles east of Memphis, in June 2007.
"I ask for the families' forgiveness and prayers, and I will pray for your families and loved ones," Critchley said.
Judge Weber McCraw approved the plea agreement worked out by defense and prosecution lawyers.
Darla Griswell, the mother of two teenage girls killed by Critchley's car, said outside the courtroom that the apology meant a lot to her, though the pain of losing her daughters remains.
"I needed that moment. I needed it bad," Griswell said. "He seemed very genuine."
She was not so forgiving of car show organizers and Selmer officials who allowed Critchley to fire up his powerful race car during a parade on a city street.
"They've got to live with that; I don't," she said. "That's between them and God."
Critchley declined comment as he left the courthouse accompanied by two lawyers.
The crash occurred while Critchley was performing a stunt called a burnout before spectators unprotected by guardrails or other barriers.
With its engine roaring and spinning tires smoking, his dragster crashed into the crowd, tossing spectators into the air and trapping others beneath the car.
Larry Price, a founder of Cars for Kids Southern Style Inc., which organized the event, said race-car burnouts had been staged for years during the annual festival without anyone getting hurt.
He said after the hearing that he felt no responsibility for the incident because spectators chose to watch.
"They were their at their own risk," he said. "They weren't invited."
Griswell accused Price and city officials of failing to protect spectators.
"You have completely ruined our lives," Griswell said from the witness stand. "Does your mind ever think about anything else? Mine won't."
Courtroom testimony did not address how the accident happened. The Tennessee Highway Patrol, which is expected to release a report on the crash now that the criminal case is over, has said Critchley apparently lost control of his car.
Critchley was the only person involved with the incident who was charged with a criminal offense. Victims and their families have filed lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages from Critchley, the city and festival organizers.
Prosecutor Michael Dunavant said in a statement that the plea agreement will allow victims to move more quickly with their lawsuits and access investigative files on the crash.
Defense lawyer Robert Hutton said a trial for Critchley would have raised tough legal questions, since the city took part in staging the parade, about "whether you can even have a criminal prosecution for something that the government itself sets up."
After the crash, town officials set tighter rules for such events and denied a 2008 parade permit for Cars for Kids. The organization held its festival without a parade or burnout demonstration.