A Hanover County, Virginia man was sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence for a 2013 DUI crash that led to the death of a 74-year old woman. Donald Johnston had been drinking heavily and decided to leave his house to get Tylenol and Gatorade. While driving, he left the road and traveled 150 feet across the highway, striking a car driven by Myrtle Duling. Also in the car was her daughter, Sophie Stidham. Mrs. Duling died of her injuries while in surgery a few days later. Ms. Stidham also died a few months later from complications from multiple sclerosis, a condition that was exacerbated by the injuries that she received in the crash. Johnston pled no contest to two charges, aggravated involuntary manslaughter and maiming. He received an eight-year sentence for the manslaughter charge and four years for the maiming charge. Johnston apparently had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of almost 3 times the .08% legal limit in Virginia.
No Contest Plea
Virginia allows a defendant to plead no contest. This means that a defendant does not admit guilt but is willing to take the punishment handed down by the court. In this case, Johnston pled no contest to two felonies. It is unknown why Johnston chose this route, but it was most likely a result of negotiation with the Commonwealth’s attorney. Given the facts of this case, it is possible that the charges were negotiated down from potential charges such as second-degree murder or for not charging for the death of Ms. Stidham. Regardless of the reason, Johnston was given a sentence on the high end of the scale and it surely came as a surprise.
Often, when taking a plea agreement, the defendant and the prosecutor will negotiate a proposed sentence. However, there is a wild card in the process: The judge. In a case where the defendant pleads guilty, no contest, or nolo contendre, the sentence is imposed by the judge. In this case, there were a number of factors that the judge most likely took into account (some of which the judge voiced) such as:
The extreme nature of Johnston’s BAC. At almost three times the legal limit, it can be inferred by the court that there was a reckless disregard for the safety of others.
Johnston apparently did nothing to bring his vehicle under control. In fact, the judge said, “You could have just stopped.”
The fact that two people were killed although the death of one may have been too attenuated to have been charged with homicide.
The Commonwealth’s attorney argued for a stiff sentence.
The accident occurred at 3 P.M., a time when there are many people on the road and Johnston’s reckless behavior endangered many more people.
This case is instructive for a number of reasons. First, pleading no contest or guilty to a DUI charge is rarely a good idea. You give control of your future to a judge who may (as it appears here) be extremely angry at your conduct and will punish you accordingly. Second, you negate the skill and ability of your defense attorney by not requiring the Commonwealth to prove its case. Finally, a DUI in Virginia that involves serious injury or death is an incredibly momentous proceeding and if the process goes wrong, can have very serious consequences. If you find yourself charged with DUI in Northern Virginia, whether or not injury or death is involved, you need an experienced DUI defense attorney to help avoid results like these. Jad Sarsour has years of experience in defending clients in cases just like this. Give him a call today at (571) 316-2639 to set up your initial consultation. Remember, your future is at stake and you need the best defense possible.