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Johnson gets 120 days, five years probation

San Benito High School teacher William Johnson was sentenced to
five years probation Tuesday on vehicular manslaughter and drunken
driving charges stemming from a July automobile accident that
killed his wife.
During an emotionally charged hearing, San Benito County
Superior Court Judge Steven Sanders sentenced Johnson to the
maximum allowable sentence of one year in jail on the two
misdemeanor charges. But Sanders suspended the sentence and placed
Johnson on probation.
San Benito High School teacher William Johnson was sentenced to five years probation Tuesday on vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving charges stemming from a July automobile accident that killed his wife.

During an emotionally charged hearing, San Benito County Superior Court Judge Steven Sanders sentenced Johnson to the maximum allowable sentence of one year in jail on the two misdemeanor charges. But Sanders suspended the sentence and placed Johnson on probation.

Johnson’s defense team said the ruling was fair for all concerned.

“We’re satisfied with what the judge came down with,” said private investigator Dennis Stafford, who worked with the defense team.

As a condition of his probation, Johnson was ordered to serve 120 days in jail. He is eligible to apply for home monitoring, under which jail officials could monitor him by an electronic device attached to him. Johnson would be allowed to go to work during the day but would be under house arrest at night.

Johnson has to turn himself over to jail officials by Jan. 26.

He is also required to serve 800 hours of community service with the county’s substance abuse program. As part of the service, Johnson is to use his skills as an educator to develop a curriculum designed to teach youths about the dangers of drinking and driving. He is to bring the proposal to Sanders for review by Feb. 20.

“This is an extraordinary case – so extraordinary that I went and looked back at what the Supreme Court had to say about sentencing,” Sanders said.

He said that while Johnson – whose wife, Nancy, died in the July 14 crash on Airline Highway – is suffering a great personal loss, the law has to send the message that certain behavior will not be condoned.

“This community cannot and will not tolerate drunk driving,” Sanders said.

Johnson, dressed in a dark blue suit, listened intently as Sanders handed down the sentence.

Sanders implied that the punishment could have been much more severe if not for District Attorney Harry Damkar.

“I think the District Attorney in an extraordinary act of compassion provided the appropriate charges,” Sanders said.

Under state law, Damkar could have charged Johnson with felony drunken driving and possibly gotten a conviction, which would have resulted in Johnson receiving a mandatory prison sentence and the loss of his teaching credential.

Damkar applauded Sanders’ ruling.

“I think Judge Sanders was very fair. He imposed the harshest possible penalty,” Damkar said. “If (Johnson) strays in any degree he could be subject to a very severe sentence.”

Before the sentencing, Sanders listened to a dozen people speak on Johnson’s behalf, including his daughters Elizabeth, Mindy and Katie.

“I need his guidance. I need him around. I don’t know what I would do without him,” Katie Johnson said, fighting back tears.

“I just don’t know where I’d be without my dad. He’s all we have now,” Mindy Johnson said through a wall of tears.

Several relatives, including Johnson’s brother-in-law James McAbee, told the court that a severe sentence would tear the family apart and cost the community a valuable teacher.

“Bill has already received his sentence. He lives with it every day, and we need him here,” McAbee said.

Sanders said although he was moved by the appeals he could not allow them to sway his decision.

“Every defendant who is convicted of a crime has a family and each one of those families would be hurt by sentencing,” he said. “If that were the only factor considered, no one would be punished and justice would grind to a halt.”

The 1 a.m. accident that led to the charges against Johnson happened along a lonely stretch of Airline Highway just north of Best Road when Johnson was reportedly driving north in a 2001 Honda coupe with his wife.

Because of his level of intoxication, Johnson allowed the car to run off the right side of the highway onto the grass-and-gravel shoulder of the road, the California Highway Patrol said.

Johnson turned hard to his left to get back on the highway, but the aggressive maneuver caused him to lose control of the car, which skidded across both lanes of the highway and off the west edge of the road.

The Honda slid down an embankment, struck a fence and rolled over, ejecting his wife, who was not wearing a seat belt, the CHP said. She sustained a severe head injury and a broken right leg.