Heather Rodriguez hoped that her daughter’s killer would, at the very least, spend one year in jail for each of the stab wounds he inflicted on the pregnant 25-year-old mother of three at a now-closed East Lyme hotel nearly four years ago.
After pleading guilty to killing Corina Zukowski, who was stabbed at least 45 times, 32-year-old Avery Hallbrooks was sentenced to 40 years in prison on Thursday in New London Superior Court.
On Dec. 11, 2018, an argument at the Starlight Inn where the couple was living at led to a violent stabbing that ended Zukowski’s life. Her family said that she had confronted him about his drug and alcohol use that night.
Family and friends of Zukowski held photos of her in the courtroom and read a series of emotional victim impact statements about how the loss changed their lives.
Rodriguez, who now has custody of the three boys who were 1, 4 and 5 years old when Zukowski died, said she hopes they always remember their mother. Her youngest grandson, she said, has only two photos with his mom: from his birth and from his first birthday, the only one she was able to celebrate with him.
“My biggest fear is that they’ll forget her,” she said.
Rodriguez said that her daughter, the oldest of nine children, was the one person who brought their entire family together and made everyone laugh.
“She was beautiful inside and out and you don’t usually get that,” Rodriguez said. “It isn’t the same without her.”
Though she knew the prosecution would lean toward a plea deal, Rodriguez said she expected Hallbrooks to serve more time.
“Never in my life did I imagine 40 years,” she said.
“I just think a 40-year sentence is absolutely ridiculous for what he did,” Rodriguez said just a few hours after the sentencing.
Judge Hillary B. Strackbein, who handed down the sentencing, said that she understands the family’s frustrations and concerns, but she hopes they understand that a plea deal saved them from the tortuous time of awaiting a trial, months of a trial and the sometimes never-ending appeals process.
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“The appeals process goes on for years and years to have a plea is worth a lot to end it,” she said after the sentencing.
“It could be absolute torture,” Strackbein said of a trial and appeals. “Here, a plea, it takes all of that out of the equation. Whatever the concept of closure might be, today it’s over.”
The judge also highlighted the fact that because Hallbrooks was sentenced for murder, he will never be eligible for any sort of early release.
“Fourty years on murder is a day-for-day sentence. It’s not like he can get out at 50 percent [of time served] or early,” she said.
But she knows that may not offer much comfort.
“If that was my daughter, I would feel the same way, I would want 100 years,” the judge said. “But it doesn’t bring her back. I have a lot of sympathy and am extremely victim-oriented. There’s nothing worse than losing your child.”
Hallbrooks has been in custody since his arrest in December 2018 at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, records show.