Letters defend man accused of felony manslaughter

Posted Sept. 28, 2009, at 8:15 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:12 p.m.

MEDWAY, Maine — A pillar of his community. Generous. A dedicated town leader. Pleasant to deal with. A loving husband and proud parent. Conscientious of his obligations. Dependable. A good businessman. Linchpin to his business’s future.

Thirty-four people, including family members, business associates, employees, acquaintances, and municipal and school leaders, described former Selectman James Lee in those glowing terms in 32 notarized letters written to Justice Jeffrey L. Hjelm, who will preside at Waldo County Superior Court in Belfast today when Lee is due to answer a felony manslaughter charge.

Police estimate that Lee, 44, a manager at the construction firm Emery Lee & Sons, was driving at least 74 mph in a 45 mph zone in a company pickup truck with three company employees when the truck went off Monroe Road in Monroe on Sept. 22, 2008, slamming into two trees and overturning.

William Russell, 28, was killed instantly. William York, 38, suffered a broken back. Chad Brackett, 31, suffered cuts to his right arm, and Lee had a broken collarbone.

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Lee, who is free on $50,000 bail, is offered a 12-year sentence with eight years suspended, meaning he faces four years of imprisonment on the manslaughter charge. He also faces four years of probation on a charge of aggravated driving to endanger, Waldo County District Attorney Geoffrey A. Rushlau said last week.

The 32 letters, released Monday by the court, seek reduced or no prison time for Lee. Many, including letters written by his children, portray a man who has suffered intense anguish and regret since the crash and detail many charitable acts done for the town and the Katahdin region such as plowing driveways for elderly residents for free.

“The accident will forever haunt my father in or out of prison,” wrote his adopted son Ryan Lee Sr., 24, of Medway. “Putting my dad in prison is not going to bring William back. Instead, it’s taking a caring father and a charitable member of the community away from everything he has worked his whole life for. The day-to-day remembrance of that awful night is more punishment than any sentence he could face.

“I just wish the Russell family could see how deeply sorry and hurt he is,” Lee added. “I am worried about the future of my family. Without my father, life is not going to be the same for any of us.”

“As his sister, I understand that he has done wrong and my heart goes out to the families affected by this tragedy,” wrote Cathy Lee Small of Medway. “I know that Jimmy has suffered because of all this and accepts responsibility for what happened.”

Besides the 32 letters praising Lee, four letters, written by family members of Russell and York, condemn the accident and what they describe as Lee’s irresponsibility.

“This past year has been a nightmare,” wrote April Stanley, who had a daughter, 4-year-old Arissa, with Russell. “When he first passed away she asked me if she could call Daddy to say goodnight to him. I told her that she couldn’t call Daddy because he was in heaven.”

None of the letters supporting Lee attempt to address or reconcile his speeding record or convictions with his role as a dedicated businessman, family man and construction company owner. Russell’s mother, Donna Russell, said she thinks she knows why.

“All they know is what Jimmy told them,” Russell said Tuesday.

Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles records show that since February 2000, Lee has had 25 speeding convictions and 11 other driving convictions in Maine. He has one conviction in July 2008 for going 76 mph in a 50-mph zone.

Lee’s license has been suspended at least six times in the past 10 years, records show. His most recent suspension ended Aug. 3, 2008, though his license was suspended again in the wake of the fatal accident.

Seventeen letters of support for Lee refer to the accident briefly or generally. It was unclear how many letters supporting Lee came at the behest of Lee’s attorney, Marvin H. Glazier. Glazier wrote a three-page biography of Lee and his family that briefly describes Lee’s work history and 10 years as a town selectman. Another letter, from Lee’s doctors, describes his medical condition.

Jay McLaughlin of Medway wrote of how he saw Lee on his father’s excavator when Lee was probably 6 years old.

“He is an extremely hard worker and has worked many hours a day and more often than not he works 7 days a week, to try to make things work in what I consider a very rough economic climate,” McLaughlin wrote.

“His education, experience and knowledge of business have been a great asset to the Town of Medway and I for one Thank Him,” wrote Sherry L. Prosser.

Peter Mead wrote of seeing Lee lying in a hospital bed wracked with back pain, “only to force himself back to work to keep the family business afloat.”

“He has shown himself to be an extremely strong family man as well as a concerned employer,” wrote Mead. “His capable ‘can do’ attitude while running a busy job site has kept many local workers in gainful employment. He is a man I am proud to call my friend.”

Writers of letters supporting Lee include those from Schenck High School Principal John W. Farrington, Magic Executive Director Bruce McLean, Medway Fire Chief John Lee, town Administrative Assistant Kathy Lee, Katahdin Federal Credit Union Financial Services worker Betty J. Averill, former Millinocket Town Coun-cil Chairman Avern Danforth, and Katahdin region recreation director Frank Clukey and his assistant, Jodi Nelson.

The hearing is due to take place at 1 p.m.

Click on the links below to view the letters:




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