Driver in Endymion crash sentenced; some with lifelong injuries say it wasn't enough

It amounts to just under four years of prison time for Neilson Rizzuto.

NEW ORLEANS - A 26-year-old man will spend the next three years in prison for plowing into a crowd watching last year's Endymion parade. 

Neilson Rizzuto received the sentence from Judge Benedict Willard Friday morning, approximately three months after he pleaded guilty to the felony counts in the crash that injured more than 30 people. Rizzuto's blood alcohol level registered at .232, almost 3 times the legal limit in Louisiana.

Victims, some still bearing physical injuries, sat in the courtroom as he was sentenced in criminal court. 

As the anniversary of the crash nears, nearly three dozen victims got the news of the sentence on a drunk driver who nearly took their lives as they watched the popular parade. Rizzuto was sentenced to five years, with one of those years suspended and another credited for time served. Some of the victims were in court and did not think the sentence was harsh enough.

"Every day that I wake up, I wake up in pain. I can't live a normal life still, you know. I have to urinate inside a plastic bag and I have to live with it every single day," said survivor Mario Basantes, 38 of New York. Basantes, whose pelvis was crushed on both sides in the crash, supported himself with a cane outside the courthouse. 
 
"I think it's a reflection of basically how the state sees drunk driving, and I think it's not a good one," said Fernando Mitchell, who suffered a concussion. 

"It was pretty minimal compared to our injuries and the number of people whose lives were impacted," said Allison Smith Mitchell who was injured along with her husband Fernando.

Rizzuto read the name of each victim in court, apologizing before the sentence was handed down by Judge Willard.

“I would like to apologize to the victims,” Rizzuto said, before reading off the long list of those hurt in the incident.

Willard also mandated for Rizzuto to write apology letters to victims and spend time in Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving meetings.

Some victims thought Rizzuto was not sincere in his apology. His attorney says he wouldn't have pleaded guilty if he wasn't sincere, and thinks his client's case highlights the need for the city to rethink Mardi Gras parade routing.

"I mean, St. Charles Avenue is wide open on the other side, as we all know Veterans Highway {SIC} is also wide open on the other side," said Rizzuto's attorney Nanak Rai. 

But victims can't change the past.

"This is something that basically affects you for the rest of your life," said Fernando Mitchell. 

Rizzuto will also have one year of supervised probation when he gets out.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said "....the judge could have imposed a more stringent sentence." Cannizzaro said he doesn't know if the sentence will be a deterrent to drinking and driving "especially during Mardi Gras season."

© 2018 WWL-TV


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