Woman gets 1-year term in fatal crash

Paperwork errors prevent longer prison sentence

Howard County

July 08, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A 35-year-old Ellicott City woman who was legally drunk when she crashed into the back of a motorcycle, killing its rider, was sentenced yesterday to one year in jail, the maximum penalty after prosecutors were forced to drop more serious charges.

Saying the limitations of the case did not allow him to send Susan Elizabeth Williams to prison for a substantial period and also place her on probation centered on alcohol treatment, Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney said the one-year term was needed to meet "the goal of justice in this case."

Before imposing the sentence for a charge of driving under the influence, Sweeney said, "I, quite frankly, wish I had a wider [sentencing] window. ... I think I roll back to the issue of this man is dead, and this man is dead because of Ms. Williams' criminal conduct."

Yesterday's sentencing was the culmination of a legal tangle that tied the hands of the Howard state's attorney's office and changed the way police and prosecutors do business in Howard County.

After Williams ran into Dennis Jerry Sullivan's motorcycle on Baltimore National Pike at St. Johns Lane on Sept. 7, police, who initially thought Sullivan's injuries were not life-threatening, issued Williams a battery of citations, including one for negligent driving.

Sullivan, 42, of Ellicott City died within hours of the crash.

For several weeks, prosecutors did not file paperwork to dismiss those citations in preparation for more serious charges. By the time they did, Williams had paid the $275 negligent-driving citation, essentially pleading guilty.

Because the charge is considered a lesser form of motor vehicle homicide, constitutional protections against double jeopardy prevented prosecutors from pursuing the homicide count, which allows for a sentence of up to five years in prison.

That left the drunken-driving charge, which carries a maximum penalty of one year. Williams was convicted of driving under the influence in May.

Since Sullivan's death, police officers have stopped issuing the negligent-driving citations in drunken-driving cases involving injury, and a veteran prosecutor has been designated to screen such cases "as soon as possible," said State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone.

"There have been adjustments made as a result of this ... in hopes we never have to repeat this," he said.

Don Bartnick, one of Sullivan's friends, said the case was a consequence of "too many mistakes."

Relatives said no jail term could compensate for the loss of Sullivan, a father of two and grandfather who was a mechanic.

During teary testimony yesterday, Sullivan's sister, Debbie Sullivan Adams, said her brother was a "gentle man with a good sense of humor" who "lived life to the fullest."

The night he died, Sullivan was on his way to the Howard County police station in Ellicott City to make a harassment complaint against the father of his granddaughter.

Prosecutors said Williams had just left the nearby Burger King, where she worked and was traveling east when she hit Sullivan's motorcycle. After the crash, Williams' blood alcohol concentration registered 0.29 percent - more than three times the legal limit.

"She alone chose to get behind the wheel of her car. ... She alone stole Dennis' future and imposed a sentence of sorrow on our family forever," Adams said.

Williams' public defender, Louis P. Willemin, said his client, who has a newborn daughter with serious health problems, has led a "difficult and chaotic" life that has included failed treatment for alcohol addiction and suicide attempts. A year in jail with no probation to ensure that she is receiving treatment will do little to help her, he said.

Willemin, who asked Sweeney to suspend all but two months of the sentence and place Williams on probation, said, "She obviously has an extremely severe addiction to alcohol. She knows she needs help with alcohol. She knows she has been unable, on her own in the past, to conquer that addiction."

Sweeney said he would recommend Williams for a substance-abuse treatment program at the Howard County Detention Center.

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