Man's sentence is based on victim's coma

Judge gives 145 days in drunken-driving death

Anne Arundel

December 03, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Honoring the request of a grieving mother, an Anne Arundel County judge imposed a 145-day prison sentence yesterday on a Washington, D.C., man convicted of killing the woman's 19-year-old daughter in a drunken-driving accident.

James Ernest Penamon's sentence represents the same amount of time that Chesapeake High School graduate Jessica Wacker spent in a coma before she died Aug. 13 last year.

"I wanted a sentence that would be meaningful," the mother, Monica Johnston, said in an interview last night. "He said he was scared to serve time in the state system, but we were scared when Jessie was in a coma, so I think, in a way, it's fair."

Penamon, 23, pleaded guilty last month to negligent homicide while under the influence of alcohol. Circuit Judge Joseph P. Manck sentenced him yesterday to five years in prison, but he agreed to amend or suspend the sentence after Penamon has served 145 days.

After the hearing, Penamon and Johnston spoke privately for about 15 minutes in the basement of the Annapolis courthouse. Johnston, 42, a Severna Park mother of three, said she forgives Penamon and wants to help him build a better life.

In court, both Johnston and Penamon described how the car accident March 23 last year on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway had a devastating impact on their lives.

"Words will never be able to convey the pain ... that is embedded in my heart," Penamon read from a letter addressed to Johnston and her family.

Penamon's public defender, Mary Jo Livingston, said her client, who had eluded police for more than a year after the accident, had recalled nothing of the accident when she began working with him about five months ago. But after viewing crime-scene photos and talking to her, Penamon slowly realized what he had done, she said.

"I watched this man go through the process of sheer horror to being ashamed," Livingston said in court.

None of Penamon's relatives or friends attended yesterday's hearing. Many of Wacker's friends and family members were in the courtroom.

As relatives softly wept and dabbed their eyes, Johnston read a lengthy prepared statement about losing her only daughter. The mother said Wacker "always had her nose in a book" and graduated from high school with 21 Advanced Placement credits.

Johnston talked about receiving the early-morning phone call from a U.S. Park Police officer after the accident - "the call that every parent dreads," she said.

According to previous court testimony, Wacker pulled to the shoulder when her old Mazda 626 broke down that morning. She called AAA, but before help arrived, a Nissan Quest minivan slammed into the stopped car.

When police arrived shortly before 4 a.m., they found two crumpled vehicles. The minivan's driver had fled. Penamon later admitted that he had been drinking alcohol most of the night before he drove the minivan from Frederick to Washington.

Using clinical terms, Johnston told the judge about all of the medical complications that followed Wacker's severe brain injury, which left her in a coma. Wacker spent the last month of her life at her family's Severna Park home.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge granted Penamon's request to speak privately with Johnston. The mother earlier had written him a note saying she had forgiven him and telling him she wanted the two to talk.

Later, Johnston described the meeting. She said Penamon was sheepish and told her that he had been scared to talk to her. But Johnston said she began "mothering" Penamon, telling him that he can't use her daughter's death as an excuse to keep living a dangerous lifestyle.

"`Sorry' is a wonderful thing," she recalled telling him. "But it doesn't mean anything if the same thing happens again."

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