Following weeks of investigation, review and a little bit of
soul searching, the San Benito County District Attorney’s Office
has filed vehicular manslaughter charges against San Benito High
School teacher William Johnson for the July auto accident that
killed his wife.
Following weeks of investigation, review and a little bit of soul searching, the San Benito County District Attorney’s Office has filed vehicular manslaughter charges against San Benito High School teacher William Johnson for the July auto accident that killed his wife.
Johnson, 50, was charged Thursday with one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and one count of misdemeanor driving under the influence of alcohol and causing death or injury, District Attorney Harry Damkar said in written statement.
If Johnson is convicted of the charges, he could be sentenced to a maximum of one year in prison on each count, according to the state penal code. He could also be fined up to $5,000 for each count and lose his driving privileges.
Johnson was facing possible felony charges for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol, which may have contributed to a July 14 accident on Airline Highway that killed his wife, Nancy McAbee Johnson, 49.
Acting on the advice of an attorney, Johnson and his family have declined to comment on the case.
Despite the penalties Johnson faces, his defense team, led by attorney Margaret Thorning, applauded Damkar’s decision not to seek a felony conviction.
“We are glad that Mr. Damkar saw it the way the committee did,” said Dennis Stafford, a member of the defense team. “Misdemeanors are a long way from felonies.”
If Johnson had been charged and convicted of a felony, he could have been sentenced to 12 years in state prison. But a felony would also carry an extra penalty for the beloved and respected educator.
“With a felony on his record, he would never be able to teach again,” Stafford said.
He said convicting Johnson of a felony would have been like punishing him twice.
“If he was a member of almost any other profession, once he had served his incarceration he would be able to go on and find another job,” Stafford said. “But as a teacher, a felony means he would lose his teaching credential.”
Nearly 100 of Johnson’s friends, family, colleagues and former students sent letters to Damkar imploring him to give Johnson as much leniency as the law allows.
Damkar said he reviewed all the facts in the case extensively before he filed the charges.
“Every case is reviewed on its own merits and every defendant is considered equal under the law,” Damkar said.
He said the decision on the appropriate charge was not an easy one.
“The defendant faced a range of charges in this case which could have included felony enhancements and a significant prison sentence,” Damkar said. “However, based on the investigations, the lack of any prior record whatsoever by the accused, the accused’s cooperation with authorities, the fact that only simple negligence and not gross negligence was present, the fact that the victim contributed significantly to her own injuries and the fact that the defendant has much to contribute to the community, which would be impossible if he were given the maximum sentence.”
Johnson is scheduled to be arraigned Nov. 19 in San Benito County Superior Court.
The 1 a.m. accident occurred along a dark, empty section of Airline Highway just north of Best Road when Johnson was reportedly driving north in a 2001 Honda coupe with his wife, the California Highway Patrol said.
Because of his level of intoxication, Johnson’s car allegedly ran off the right side of the highway onto the grass and gravel shoulder, the CHP said.
Johnson then turned hard to the left to get back on the highway, but the turning motion reportedly caused him to lose control of the Honda, which skidded across both lanes of the highway and off the western edge of the road, the CHP said.
The Honda slid down an embankment, struck a fence and rolled over. Nancy Johnson, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car and suffered a severe head injury and a broken right leg, the CHP said.
The Johnsons’ car came to rest at the bottom of a drainage ditch.
Johnson, who was wearing his seat belt, suffered multiple cuts, scrapes and bruises.
Emergency crews pulled his wife out of the automobile and up a steep brush-covered embankment to the highway where firefighters and paramedics administered medical treatment.