After over a decade of waiting, metro hit-and-run victim’s family gets closure with driver’s guilty plea

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Years went by with no suspect arrested in a hit-and-run death or answers for a metro man's family. But Friday, more than 11 years after the incident, Cesar Saenz pleaded guilty and apologized for what happened.

"I apologize that my reckless behavior claimed the life of Mr. Jerry Smith. I'm really sorry. I apologize, and I didn't mean for this to happen," Saenz said in a Jackson County courtroom.

Saenz pleaded guilty Friday to involuntary manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident. Smith was hit by Saenz at 9th and Benton in October 2007 when he was helping a driver on the side of the road.

For years and years, Smith's sister Lea Ann Benedetto fought to find who was responsible and see justice served.

"My family needs closure. We all need closure," Benedetto said in 2009.

"This is my brother. This is who was taken from us," she said in court Friday. "My brother was right where he was meant to be. He was helping someone who needed him."

With Saenz making his guilty plea, Smith's family may now feel closure.

"I think this is a long time coming, and I'm proud to see this day happen. Thank you," said Sharon Carroll, Smith's mother.

"My hope is that he uses these years as a stepping stone to elevate himself to do something good with his life, because if my father would have had a few more years, he would have done something great with his," said Smith's daughter, Candace Hampton.

"I hope the lesson you take from this is to be thankful for your children and family. I hope that you enjoy the memories you make with your children and your family because one day those may be all you have left," said James Smith, Jerry's son.

In the midst of the victim impact statements, there was also a moment of forgiveness between James Smith and Saenz, who shook hands and hugged.

"I always wondered who Mr. Smith was and what kind of life he lived. Was he a father, husband, son? Seeing you guys here, always present, made me feel even more hurtful for myself," Saenz said.

"That gave me closure, letting us just get this thing over so we can go about our lives and teach our children to do good things," James Smith said.

Family said spreading goodwill is exactly what their father would want them to do.

Saenz is not a legal resident of the United States. His plea agreement means he will serve four years in the Missouri Department of Corrections, and then be turned over to immigration enforcement. His attorneys provided this statement.

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