Yesterday was the first time Howard had said anything publicly about the Oct. 11 accident. She described in court how she had turned to check on her 4-year-old son in the backseat of her leased Ford Explorer when the vehicle veered onto the shoulder of the interstate in Gloucester City.
Robert R. Hoagland 2d, 29, of Atco, was fixing the left rear tire on his Ford Mustang. He was about two feet off the highway, near the Walt Whitman Bridge, when he and his car were struck by the Explorer about 6 p.m. Authorities said he was dragged several feet. His wife of one year, Maureen, witnessed the accident. She is suing Howard for negligence.
Hoagland's mother and stepfather said they would ask for the maximum sentence. They described Howard as "selfish and cold" for leaving the scene and attempting to hide her involvement by washing the Explorer and returning it to a dealership.
Had she stopped and tried to help, the family might have had compassion for her, said Hoagland's mother, Florence Becker, and her husband, Jon.
"We could have given a piece of our heart to her," Jon Becker said. "But to leave, wash your vehicle, and then get rid of it - pretend that you just hit a piece of cardboard box going down the road. Why couldn't she just stay there?"
"We want to see her sentenced for what she did, not who she is," Florence Becker said.
Howard, wearing a black pantsuit, was accompanied into court by her lawyer, her parents, and her husband, Ron Howard, who is the public information officer for the Eagles. She was shaking when she placed her left hand on a Bible, raised her right hand, and swore to tell the truth. Then, she entered an open plea that allows the judge to impose any sentence from probation to 6 years in prison.
When Hornstine asked Howard what happened, she said, "There was a motor-vehicle accident." Responding to more questions, she said in a quiet voice that she had stopped, but then got back into her vehicle and left the scene.
When asked by Camden County Prosecutor Lee A. Solomon what she was doing at the time of the impact, Howard responded: "I had turned around to look at my son, who was crying."
Howard and the Hoaglands were returning home from an Eagles game. Test results showed Hoagland had been drinking that day; prosecutors said they did not believe Howard had been drinking.
Investigators initially thought Howard might have been talking on a cellular phone before the crash, but they said later that phone records showed she was not using her phone at the time.
Howard appeared confused in court after her lawyer, Teri Lodge, asked her if she had washed her car the next day in order to get rid of evidence.
"No," she responded, causing Hoagland's relatives and friends, who packed the courtroom, to respond audibly.
When asked the same question a second time and told by Lodge to listen carefully, Howard said yes, it had been her intention to get rid of evidence from the accident. She said she returned the car to the dealership, however, because the lease was up that day.
When she returned the car to the Lilliston Ford dealership in Vineland, where the car had been leased to the Eagles, Howard said, she believed the car would be fixed, which would hide evidence of the accident.
Two days after Hoagland's death, police received a tip and then found the Explorer at the dealership. Investigators sent the vehicle to the state police crime lab, where paint tests were conducted and the Explorer was checked for blood. Prosecutors did not discuss the test results yesterday.
In addition to the two felony charges, Howard pleaded guilty to careless driving. Prosecutors dismissed two additional charges of failing to report an accident and failure to maintain a single lane.
In addition to possible prison time, Howard faces fines of up to $15,000 and the loss of her driver's license.
Howard had posted $15,000 bail shortly after her arrest and yesterday was allowed to leave through a back exit to bypass the crowded courtroom. Hoagland's widow, who sat with her family, did the same.
Maureen Hoagland "is relieved because Karen Howard has finally accepted responsibility," said lawyer Joel Wayne Garber, who filed the wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of the family.
"It was the whole time period of not knowing who was responsible that weighed heavily on the family," Garber said, adding that Hoagland's family had wished that the law required stiffer penalties; the family is seeking legislation requiring stronger punishment for similar cases.
A grand jury could have indicted Howard on more serious charges of manslaughter or vehicular homicide if it had found enough evidence to show her behavior was negligent and that she acted with disregard for human life. Those charges carry a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.
After yesterday's hearing, Solomon said he would ask for a long prison term.
Howard entered an open plea, Solomon said, because prosecutors could not reach a plea agreement in which Howard would accept the prison time they wanted.
"We'll leave it up to the judge," Solomon said.