"Two years for two lives," said Scott Johnson, right, after Jessica Lewis was sentenced for the deaths of his brother, Mike, and niece, Amber. His mother, Naomi Jean Johnson, center, raised Amber.
Jessica Lewis' uncle, Steve Trunzo, disputes the prosecution's contention that pot smoking and speeding caused the fatal crash.
photo by lisa provence
Both the prosecution and defense pretty much agree that no one can do anything worse to Jessica Lewis than she already did to herself when she crashed into a tree and killed her 20-year-old daughter and her ex-husband– and that no amount of jail time will bring them back.
The families of Lewis, Amber Johnson, and Mike Johnson were in court January 16 for Lewis to be sentenced for two counts of involuntary manslaughter. They all mourned Amber and Mike, but were sharply divided on how much time Lewis should serve in prison– and clashed afterward outside the Albemarle Circuit Court.
The Johnson family wanted a "significant" sentence– the 10-year maximum for each count, according to Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jon Zug, who said he explained to them that 20 years was inconsistent with typical sentencing. However, he also said he wanted to send a message to anyone who's thinking about driving, drinking, and doing drugs at the same time.
He asked for four years jail time, and that Lewis pay $8,000 in restitution to the Johnsons for funeral expenses. "I don't know that we can heap any more guilt on the defendant than she's put on herself," said Zug. "Day in and day out, she knows she killed two people she cares about very much."
During the hearing, Lewis sat slightly forward at the defense table with her hair obscuring her face. Her attorney, George Coles, listed abuse, neglect, childhood trauma, and sexual trauma as factors that led to the tragic mistake.
Lewis met Michael Johnson when she was 15 and he was 19, said Coles. They married and she had a baby at 16– "a recipe for disaster," he said.
She was hospitalized at ages 13, 17, and 27 for suicide observation, said her attorney. By the time Amber was six, Lewis gave up her daughter to be raised by Naomi Johnson, Mike's mother.
The night of the crash, the three had eaten dinner at Cheeseburger in Paradise, where Amber worked. "The evening on the town was to celebrate Jessica's freedom," said Coles. "That very day she left an abusive spouse. Her bags were packed, and she took out a protective order."
Coles reminded the court that she has two sons from that marriage. "She needs to get through this and be a mother to two boys," he said.
Lewis was seriously injured in the fatal crash. "She was wearing her seatbelt," noted Coles. "What killed Amber and Michael was that they were not wearing seatbelts."
Initially Lewis was charged with driving under the influence following the November 10, 2011, fiery crash on Half Branch Road in Crozet. But no alcohol turned up in her blood. THC– the active ingredient in marijuana– and the prescription anxiety drug Clonazepam did.
Lewis has admitted they'd stopped at a friend's house where she'd smoked marijuana. And in a statement to the court before sentencing, she said her daughter and Mike were angry because she "refused to take them to a place they had no business going."
Said Lewis, "I'd give anything to change what happened. I often wish I'd died in the accident."
Judge Cheryl Higgins noted the "chaos" in the car before the accident. "This is not drunk driving. This was driving angry, driving on medication, driving 80mph," she said before sentencing Lewis to 10 years on each charge, with nine years suspended, and two years of supervised probation. She also ordered Lewis to work and to pay the $8,000 in funeral costs."
After the hearing, as Zug talked to reporters outside the courthouse, Lewis' uncle, Steve Trunzo, interrupted the prosecutor and disputed that marijuana-smoking caused the accident and that Lewis had been going 80mph on narrow Half Branch Road.
"That's not the cause of the accident," said Trunzo. "She'd been beaten by a spouse for 18 years." And the argument in the car was because Amber and Mike wanted to party in Waynesboro, he said.
"Don't make this look like it was Mike and Amber's fault," said matriarch Naomi Johnson, who joined the post-courtroom fray. "Just let my son and granddaughter rest in peace."