An Effingham County Superior Court Judge imposed the maximum sentence permitted under law Monday afternoon for a drunk driver convicted of killing an Effingham County man who was on a golf cart with his wife.
Donny Lee Johnson was indicted in 2020 for the October 2019 crash which claimed the life of James “Tommy” Carter and injured his wife, Gail Carter. The two were on a golf cart equipped with front and rear lights and were traveling in their neighborhood where they often beautified the community park and picked up trash.
At the time of the crash, Johnson was well-known to law enforcement in the region and Effingham County specifically. Most notably, Johnson had two pending DUI charges at the time of his arrest, was driving on a suspended license because of other traffic infractions, and had a total of 36 GCIC cycles dating back to 2000 as well as 13 traffic citations, highlighting a lengthy criminal record. Police across jurisdictions also charged Johnson with upwards of five different offenses of driving while on a suspended or revoked license. In Georgia, a person convicted of that offense three times, is charged with a felony for any subsequent offenses. In Effingham County, however, officials in state court routinely reduced the charge to the lesser offense of Driving Without a License.You can read more about that here.
Johnson was subsequently charged for the death of Tommy Carter and indicted on the following counts:
- Homicide by Vehicle – 1st degree
- Driving Under the Influence (Per Se)
- Homicide by Vehicle – 1st degree
- Driving Under the Influence (Less Safe)
- Homicide by Vehicle – 1st degree
- Reckless Driving
- Driving While License Suspended
- Following Too Closely
Note: The reason for 3 Homicide by Vehicle charges despite only one death is because felony vehicular homicide requires an ‘underlying offense’ to make the charge a felony, as opposed to a misdemeanor. The tripling up of charges is a way for prosecutors to ensure a conviction of Vehicular Homicide even if the DUI does not ‘stick’ at the time of trial.
The felony vehicular homicide and DUI trial was underway Monday morning when Johnson decided he would instead enter a guilty plea. It happened during a recess ordered by Judge Michael Muldrew following the breakdown of the first witness to take the stand after opening statements. His change of plea halted the trial which was originally expected to last until Tuesday.
Assistant District Attorney Matt Breedon had just told jurors that Johnson, who voluntarily consented to a blood draw on the night of the crash, was driving his 2007 Chevrolet Silverado with a BAC of 0.138. He also failed all three of the Field Sobriety Tests administered by the GSP Trooper who responded to the wreck. Breedon said Johnson lied to law enforcement about attempts to hit the brakes before the crash, was dishonest about how much he had to drink, and was seen smoking a cigarette by his truck while neighbors who witnessed the crash aftermath attempted to render aid to Carter.
During the brief opening for the defense, Rincon attorney Craig Bonnell said Johnson was “not the legal cause of Tommy Carter’s death” and while Johnson should not have been driving on a suspended license that night, golf carts are not street legal on Effingham County roads.
Tommy Carter’s widow, Gail Carter, took the stand Monday after opening statements and talked briefly about how frequently golf carts were utilized in their community. She said they also routinely encountered law enforcement officers while on the carts, but were never told they could not ride them on the streets. Carter had answered just two questions when ADA Matt Breedon presented her with a host of photos from the night of the crash, prompting Carter to break down in tears and cry almost inconsolably in front of the jury. Judge Muldrew said the court would take a ten minute recess and it was at that time that Johnson conferred with his legal counsel and decided to change his plea.
Subsequently, and because some charges ‘merge’ together for the purpose of sentencing, Johnson pleaded guilty to:
- Homicide by Vehicle – 1st degree [3-15 year prison sentence]
- Driving Under the Influence (Per Se) [misdemeanor – up to 12 months]
- Reckless Driving [misdemeanor – up to 12 months]
- Driving While License Suspended [misdemeanor – up to 12 months]
- Following Too Closely [misdemeanor – up to 12 months]
Ahead of sentencing, the court heard from Gail Carter, Tommy and Gail Carter’s son, Byron, and the brother of Gail Carter, Bill Harrington. Each delivered heartfelt testimony about the man Carter was, the life he lived, how he served his community, and the holes left by his absence.
The state asked for the maximum penalty under the law, citing Johnson’s recidivist history and the seeming inability of probation sentences to have an impact on Johnson’s actions. “No sentence before has stopped him from doing what he wants to do,” Breedon said. He also belabored Johnson’s refusal, until court, to take responsibility for his actions, delaying previous trial dates, switching back and forth between bench trial and jury trial requests, and seeking continuances after agreeing to take pleas.
Johnson briefly took the stand on his own behalf and offered a tearful apology. “I’m very sorry. I was the person behind the wheel and I’m truly sorry from the bottom of my heart, please forgive me.”
“I have,” Gail Carter said from the pews.
Bonnell, on Johnson’s behalf, argued for the court to consider that Johnson was moved in sympathy by seeing Gail Carter on the stand and that’s what persuaded him to enter a plea. He also said Johnson wasn’t jerking the court along for the last few years. “He had an arguable defense. A county ordinance prohibits golf carts on county roads, Carter had a BAC of 0.029 and had benzodiazepine in his system.’
The state asked for the maximum penalty under the law, citing Johnson’s recidivist history and the seeming inability of probation sentences to have an impact on Johnson’s actions. “No sentence before has stopped him from doing what he wants to do,” Breedon said.
Judge Muldrew wasted no time in imposing the sentence and dismissed the defense’s comments on the actions of Carter.
“It does not matter that there was a small amount of alcohol and likely a prescription drug in his system,” Muldrew said. “95% of people never commit any crimes. You’ve spent most of your adult life victimizing your fellow citizens. God may have mercy on you, but this court will not.”
- Homicide by Vehicle – 1st degree 15 years to serve, ‘day for day,’ without the possibility of parole
- Driving Under the Influence (Per Se) [12 months to serve, consecutive to previous counts]
- Reckless Driving [12 months to serve, consecutive to previous counts]
- Driving While License Suspended [12 months to serve, consecutive to previous counts]
- Following Too Closely [12 months to serve, consecutive to previous counts]
The sentence totals 19 years behind bars.
Johnson has been in the Effingham County Jail since his arrest in February 2020.