Man's 3-year term in fatal drunken-driving crash exceeds plea agreement

September 21, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

An Ellicott City man was sentenced yesterday to three years in prison -- six months beyond the terms of his plea agreement -- for a February 1993 drunken-driving accident in which one of his friends was killed.

William Bruce Bell, 31, of the 3500 block of Court House Drive was given the sentence in Howard Circuit Court. He pleaded guilty in July to a charge of homicide by vehicle in exchange for a prison term not exceeding 2 1/2 years.

But Judge Cornelius Sybert Jr. told Bell he would not grant the shorter sentence.

"You have taken a life from this earth," the judge said. "I just can't in good conscience go along with any less than I've given."

Bell, a maintenance technician for Columbia Housing Corp., was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison in Howard District Court in January for homicide by vehicle. He appealed the conviction to Circuit Court.

As part of a plea agreement in July, Judge Sybert agreed not to give Bell more than the 2 1/2 -year sentence he received in District Court.

Yesterday, however, Judge Sybert sentenced Bell to five years in prison and suspended two years of the term. The judge also ordered Bell to complete counseling and three years of supervised probation.

Judge Sybert issued the sentence after the father of the victim -- Cyreno Maurice Johnson, 41, of Fort Washington -- urged him to issue a stiff sentence to warn citizens that drunken driving is not acceptable.

"There probably isn't severe enough consequences for people who perpetrate these kinds of things," said Maurice Johnson of Fredericksburg, Va. "The community needs to be aware that when something like this happens, something will happen other than a slap on the wrist."

Meanwhile, Bell told Judge Sybert that he was willing to go to prison for his actions, but he asked the judge not to punish his five children by giving him a lengthy sentence.

"I take full responsibility for my wrongdoings," said Bell, turning to the victim's parents. "I'd like to extend my sincere sorrow to the Johnson family. I'm sorry for the pain and suffering you had to endure."

Michael Caplan, a Baltimore attorney for Bell, requested an 18-month prison term for his client. He argued that Mr. Johnson shares some blame for the accident, noting that he had a blood alcohol level of 0.18 percent, while Bell's blood alcohol level was 0.17 percent. The levels for both men were well above the state's legal limit of 0.10 percent.

"Two people made a tragic mistake that day," Mr. Caplan said. "It wasn't all Mr. Bell's fault. If the other person elected not drink, maybe we wouldn't be here today."

Mr. Caplan also presented two supervisors at Columbia Housing Corp., who testified that Bell was a good worker. In addition, a counselor at the county Department of Health testified that Bell has progressed well in the county's outpatient program for alcohol abuse.

But Assistant State's Attorney Timothy Mitchell urged Judge Sybert to look at Bell's actions before the accident -- not since the crash, after he knew that he faced prison.

"Mr. Bell got in a car while drunk and ended up killing someone," the prosecutor said. "That is what society fears most."

In the Feb. 21, 1993, accident, Bell was driving Mr. Johnson home along U.S. 29 in Ellicott City after they had attended a party in Elkridge and gone to a Baltimore nightclub, according to police reports.

Bell's car, traveling at 71 mph, struck a guardrail, became airborne and rolled 19 feet down an embankment before it came to rest on Frederick Road, police said.

Mr. Johnson was pronounced dead at the scene. Bell was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore for a broken clavicle.

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