Fatal accident results only in DUI conviction

Double-jeopardy rule shields Howard woman

May 04, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

An Ellicott City woman who was legally drunk when she rammed the back of a motorcycle last year, killing its rider, faces no more than a year in prison because of constitutional protections against being charged twice for the same crime.

Susan Elizabeth Williams, 35, was convicted yesterday of driving under the influence - the most serious charge that remained in the aftermath of a Howard Circuit judge's decision to dismiss motor vehicle homicide charges related to the Sept. 7 death of Dennis Jerry Sullivan.

Although Williams' blood alcohol content registered 0.29 - more than three times the legal limit - her lawyer argued last month that her decision to pay a $275 negligent-driving citation issued the night of the crash on Baltimore National Pike protected her from a homicide prosecution.

That left prosecutors with the drunken-driving charge, which carries up to one year in jail - less than the 5-year maximum penalty for vehicular homicide.

Yesterday, Williams, who is due to give birth next month, pleaded not guilty to driving under the influence, but waived her right to a trial and allowed Judge Dennis M. Sweeney to find her guilty based solely on a statement of the case read into the record.

Members of the Sullivan family packed the courtroom benches yesterday. Last night, Sullivan's father, J. Nelson Sullivan Sr., said "nobody's happy" about the outcome, adding that he would be "surprised" if Williams were sentenced to a year in jail.

"It's just like his life wasn't worth nothing," he said.

Williams, who lives in the 8700 block of Town and Country Blvd. in Ellicott City, according to her indictment, is scheduled for sentencing July 7. She declined comment after the hearing.

Howard State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone said the case was "extremely frustrating" for his office.

"The Sullivans are a wonderful family who have been devastated by the loss of their son," he said. "Any reasonable person would sympathize with them because, to some extent, the system has let them down."

But a legal expert said the judge had no choice once Williams paid the fine.

"The defendant already went to trial, figuratively speaking, and was found guilty by writing that check - which the government and its agents accepted," said Byron L. Warnken, who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure at University of Baltimore School of Law.

"My guess is that in a case like this, they're going to pay a little more attention in Howard County," he said.

In the aftermath of the Williams case, the county Police Department has sent a memo to its officers, asking them not to issue negligent-driving citations in accidents that involve injury, according to McCrone and a police spokesman.

"All we can do is modify our procedures to ensure that it never happens again," McCrone said.

Williams' conviction was the end result for prosecutors who said their efforts to hold the Ellicott City woman accountable for Sullivan's death were stymied by a series of events.

Sullivan was able to speak with investigators at the accident scene on eastbound Baltimore National Pike at St. Johns Lane, and the rookie police officer who handled the case did not believe his injuries were life-threatening, McCrone said. Prosecutors said yesterday that Williams had just left work at a nearby Burger King when she crashed into Sullivan.

Within hours, officers issued Williams several citations, including one for negligent driving.

But Sullivan, a 42-year-old mechanic and father of two from Ellicott City, died of "multiple injuries" at Maryland Shock Trauma less than four hours af ter the accident, according to court records. And although prosecutors filed paperwork to drop the negligent-driving charge, Williams paid the fine before the case was dismissed, McCrone said.

That set up last month's argument, he said.

At the April 1 hearing, Williams' public defender, Louis P. Willemin, argued that because negligent driving is considered a lesser form of motor vehicle homicide, prosecuting his client on that charge after she paid the fine would amount to double jeopardy - trying her twice for the same crime - which is constitutionally prohibited.

Prosecutors conceded, saying that "after much research and brainstorming" they had no argument to offer.

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