Factors detailed in charges' dismissal

Woman from Ellicott City avoided a homicide trial in drunken-driving crash

May 06, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A police officer who didn't realize how seriously a victim was injured and a prosecutor's maternity leave were among the factors that enabled an Ellicott City woman to avoid a vehicular homicide charge after killing a motorcyclist in a drunken-driving accident, Howard's top prosecutor says.

Susan Elizabeth Williams, 35, faces up to a year in jail after her conviction Monday of driving under the influence, the most serious charge that remained after a Howard County circuit judge dismissed motor-vehicle homicide charges related to the death Sept. 7 of Dennis Jerry Sullivan. The judge ruled that Williams' decision to pay a $275 negligent-driving citation issued the night of the crash on Baltimore National Pike protected her from prosecution on a vehicular homicide charge, which carries a maximum jail sentence of five years.

An on-call prosecutor who was first notified by police of Sullivan's death may not have known that Williams had been cited for negligent driving, said State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone.

A different prosecutor, who was on maternity leave at the time, was later assigned the case. When she returned to work, she filed paperwork to drop the negligent-driving charge, seven weeks after the accident. But Williams, 35, paid the fine and costs before the matter was dismissed, he said.

Because negligent driving is considered a lesser form of motor vehicle homicide, constitutional protections against trying a person twice for the same crime, barred prosecutors from trying Williams on the stronger charges, a Howard circuit judge ruled last month.

"I think the best way we can protect ourselves from this is simply not to issue negligent-driving citations," McCrone said. "It has almost no value, but it creates the potential for serious problems."

Williams' sentencing in front of Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney is scheduled for July 7.

Sullivan was stopped for a traffic light at St. Johns Lane on eastbound Baltimore National Pike just after midnight when Williams, who had just left work at a nearby Burger King, crashed her Toyota Camry into the back of his motorcycle, prosecutors said.

Williams' blood-alcohol level was later measured at 0.29 percent, more than three times the legal limit, authorities said.

At the scene, Sullivan was able to give officers his name and contact information for his sister, prosecutors said.

Because the officer, who had to make a "medical judgment" at the scene, did not believe Sullivan's injuries were potentially fatal, the department's traffic unit was not called to the scene immediately, and Williams was issued a number of citations, including one for negligent driving, McCrone said.

Sullivan, 42, a mechanic and father of two from Ellicott City, died a few hours later.

Seven weeks later, Williams paid the fine for the negligent-driving citation.

"There came a time that we realized that the case was open with those counts," said Williams' attorney, Louis P. Willemin. He would not say what he told his client but said paying the fine "would be the advice that a lawyer would give if a lawyer was paying attention."

Since the Williams case, the Police Department's traffic unit has circulated a memo to officers asking them not to issue negligent-driving citations in accidents involving injuries.

One official with Mothers Against Drunk Driving chalked up the case to "incomplete" training and inexperience, and said his organization must make sure any necessary follow-up is done in cases like the one against Williams.

"My heart goes out to [the Sullivans] because they've just been through the wringer on this situation, and this is just the crowning blow," said Tony Pung, the immediate past president of the Howard County chapter of MADD.

But Pung and Stacy Kurnot, executive director for MADD in Maryland, said the larger problem is keeping drunken drivers off the roads.

Efforts calling for enhanced penalties for repeat offenders and for dealing with "super" drunken drivers - those with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or higher - failed in the legislature this session, Kurnot said.

"It's disappointing because there are great laws on the books, but there are so many loopholes," she said. "If we could close up some of the loopholes, we could make a better effort at stopping this."

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