LOWELL -- In a courtroom filled with the weeping relatives of three children killed when a speeding sport utility vehicle slammed into a tree, the 28-year-old Lynn woman who was behind the wheel was sentenced yesterday to 6 1/2 years in prison.
Middlesex Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke sentenced Kasandra Doyle to one year shy of the maximum for three counts of motor vehicle homicide.
''Today the system worked for us," said Carol Scalesse, grandmother of one of the girls who died in the crash.
Several relatives excoriated Doyle from the witness stand for showing little remorse through the two-week trial that culminated Thursday, when a jury convicted Doyle of motor vehicle homicide, but found her not guilty on three counts of manslaughter, which could have meant a longer sentence.
Doyle sat at a table in the center of the courtroom, her head frequently in her hands, her eyes impassive during yesterday's two-hour sentencing hearing.
Her lawyer criticized the sentence, comparing it with a plea deal Thursday that resulted in a distant member of the Saudi royal family getting one year in prison after he admitted to driving drunk when he struck and killed a man on a downtown Boston street.
''Its a two-tiered system, one for the wealthy and powerful, and one for the poor and homeless," Stanley Norkunas said after the sentencing.
In the days before the March 15, 2003, crash, there had been a snowstorm, and Catherine Scalesse had blown out a tire, and then she slid on ice. Shaken by the incidents, she borrowed her husband's SUV and asked Doyle to drive it on their way to Lowell from a Worcester homeless shelter where the two women had met and were staying.
Six children were in the SUV. Among them were sisters 9-year-old Nicole and 6-year-old Lilly Griffin -- the children of Doyle's friend -- and 11-year-old Brittany Scalesse, Catherine's daughter. All three girls were in the rear cargo area, and none were buckled up.
Doyle was driving about 85 miles an hour, 20 miles over the speed limit on Interstate 495 in Westford, when she swerved to avoid a car in the passing lane. She lost control of the vehicle, which smashed into a tree in the median. The three girls were thrown from the SUV. They were pronounced dead at area hospitals.
Dennis Griffin, Nicole and Lilly's father, told the judge yesterday that every time he passes a playground or sees something in a store that he bought for his daughters, he feels a terrible loss.
His youngest daughter cries for her sisters, and his eldest son has ''totally changed," he said in a statement he read from the witness stand. ''Our entire family is totally devastated."
Seeking to counter the relatives' testimony, Norkunas recounted Doyle's troubled life story. Born in Lynn to alcoholic parents, Doyle was introduced to drugs and alcohol by her father when she was 12, he said. She dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. At 17, she was homeless. At 18, she moved in with a drug dealer, and at 19, she was arrested for trafficking cocaine and later convicted. Soon after she was released from prison, she met another man, had a child by him and left after he began dealing drugs.
Doyle was living in the Worcester homeless shelter and was heading to a narcotics anonymous meeting in Lowell when she lost control of the SUV, her lawyer said.
Norkunas said his client had been suicidal since the crash and was deeply remorseful.
Carol Scalesse said so was she.
''How does my family go on?" she asked, her eyes welling with tears. ''None of us will ever be the same."
Douglas Belkin can be reached at email@example.com.