D.C. man, 23, guilty in fatal crash

Arundel woman says she forgives drunken driver who killed her daughter

November 21, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Monica Johnston held her 20-year-old daughter's hand for five months as she lay in a coma after being hit by a drunken driver on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The young woman died Aug. 13 last year.

When police couldn't find the drunken driver after more than a year, the Severna Park mother of three made a televised appeal in June that prompted the suspect's mother to turn him in.

Yesterday, Johnston watched as James Ernest Penamon pleaded guilty to negligent homicide while under the influence of alcohol in the death of her daughter, Jessica Wacker. Then she slipped his lawyer a letter telling Penamon that she had forgiven him.

"What he needs is to know that somebody cares about him as a human being," Johnston said.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors and Johnston's family marvel at the compassion she has shown for the 23-year-old Washington, D.C., resident who admitted yesterday to fatally injuring her daughter and fleeing the scene.

Under the plea arrangement, Penamon could be sentenced next month to up to five years in prison. Johnston has one request: that he spend 145 days in prison, the same number of days her daughter spent in a coma.

Jessica, a graduate of Chesapeake High School, was driving from her boyfriend's house in Pasadena to her grandmother's house in Greenbelt on March 23 last year when her green Mazda 626 broke down on the parkway.

She pulled to the shoulder and called AAA at 3:24 a.m., but before help arrived, a navy blue Nissan Quest minivan veered off the road and slammed into the stopped car, police said.

The U.S. Park Police arrived 20 minutes later to find two crumpled vehicles. Jessica was slumped over the wheel of the Mazda, unconscious and badly injured. The driver of the minivan was nowhere to be found, police said.

At 4 a.m., the phone rang in Johnston's Anne Arundel County home. It was a police officer.

Shaken but calm, Johnston made a pot of coffee and awoke Jessica's brother Jimmy, now 19.

"Sissy's been in an accident," she said.

Johnston, 42, recently recalled how she knew instinctively from the tone in the officer's voice that her daughter would die.

Hospitals were tough for Johnston. Her husband - Jessica and Jimmy's father - died of cancer in 1993. She remarried in 1997.

Jessica spent two weeks at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, and then was transferred to a coma-emergence program at Kernan Hospital in Baltimore, where she remained for three months.

At Kernan, Jessica's tiny, weakened body started seizing. Doctors there confirmed what the family knew: Jessica was dying.

Johnston wanted her home, so the family installed hardwood floors on the ground level so that the hospital bed, the wheelchair and the heavy equipment could roll in.

"I wanted her to die at home, in a place she knew," Johnston said.

Now the room is mostly empty, except for a piano and chairs at its perimeter.

During the coma, Jessica never made a sound, rarely opened her eyes and did not respond to touch, her mother said. But friends from her Severna Park neighborhood, high school classmates and employees from the Ruby Tuesday and Bill Bateman's Bistro restaurants where she had worked came in droves to the living room-turned-hospice.

"That was hard," Johnston said, "seeing all those kids here to say goodbye."

Family members lamented that Jessica never had a chance to get married and raise a family, but 6-year-old Joseph, Jessica's half-brother, likes to remind people, "She raised me. She got to raise me."

Photos of Jessica at various stages of her youth hang on the walls and dot most of the shelves and tables in the house. She never wore makeup, her mother said, and kept her dark brown hair simple and straight.

Her big brown eyes sparkle, and her goofy, easygoing personality shows in all of the pictures - sometimes through a cockeyed smile, sometimes through an unexpected outfit, like the photo of her at a formal dance wearing a top hat, but no shoes, with her long, black dress.

There are other, sadder pictures of Jessica that her mother took after she fell into a coma.

"This is my favorite picture of her in a coma," Johnston said, clicking her nail on an image on a computer screen. The photo showed Jessica in a hospital bed with her head wrapped in gauze.

"She was like a baby," Johnston said.

After the draining experience of caring for her injured daughter - changing her diapers, feeding her, giving her medicine - few things sway Johnston.

Even when she learned Penamon had been arrested in June, the mother remained unflappable.

"You got him," she said matter-of-factly when she answered the phone.

Detective Michelle Ludwick had called Johnston from her cell phone. She was on her way to the police station to interview Penamon.

Park Police had almost immediately identified Penamon as the driver the night of the accident. Finding him was another matter. He has family in Frederick and Washington, but Ludwick said Penamon was never around.

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