BELFAST, Maine — The former Medway selectman with a long history of driving violations will go on trial next year for the fatal 2008 truck accident that police said was caused by his reckless driving.
Waldo County Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm on Tuesday afternoon rejected the plea bargain that state prosecutors offered to James Lee, saying that Lee was “stone-cold sober” during the Sept. 22, 2008, accident in Monroe that killed 28-year-old William Russell, and that the 44-year-old Lee demonstrated an “extreme” level of recklessness despite being sober. Hjelm also cited Lee’s driving record of 36 traffic violations from 1986 to 2008, including 25 for speeding.
Hjelm said that Lee — who was described by many from Medway in letters to the court as a civic-minded family man — doesn’t require the significant probationary time that was part of the bargain.
“Mr. Lee doesn’t need that kind of guidance,” Hjelm said at the plea hearing, which was well-attended by victims and their supporters as well as Lee’s family and friends. “He’s a smart person. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong. … There was no reason for him to be oblivious to the risks he was posing to his three passengers.”
Lee had pleaded guilty to a charge of felony manslaughter and a charge of aggravated driving to endanger as part of the agreement with prosecutors, but in rejecting the plea bargain Hjelm changed the pleas to not guilty on both charges.
Had the judge accepted the plea bargain, Lee could have faced a 12-year sentence with eight years suspended, which is what the state had offered. He is free on $50,000 bail.
Though it’s not usual for judges to reject plea bargains, it is not unheard of, according to District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau. The manslaughter trial won’t be scheduled earlier than January, he said.
Some in the courtroom were pleased with Hjelm’s decision.
“I thought it was a good outcome,” said Donna Russell, William Russell’s mother, after the hearing. “Everybody has been calling it an accident. Well, it wasn’t just an accident. I want [Lee’s] driver’s license to be taken away.”
William Russell was working at a Belfast job site for Lee’s family construction company, Medway-based Emery Lee and Sons. Lee was managing the job site and was driving home the evening of Sept. 22, 2008, in his 2004 Chevy Silverado when it went off the Monroe Road in Monroe. Russell died instantly when the truck slammed into two trees and rolled over. William York, now 38, of Medway, suffered a broken back in the accident, and Chad Brackett, now 31, also of Medway, suffered cuts to his right arm. Lee had a broken collarbone.
According to the police accident report, the 2004 Chevy Silverado was traveling about 74 mph when it went off the curving rural road, which had a speed limit of 45 mph.
Hjelm heard emotional testimony about the accident and its aftermath from Lee, York and Donna Russell, among others.
“He got into the truck and took off, just like a bullet,” said York, who used his cane to help him step haltingly to the front of the courtroom. “We said, ‘Jimmy, take it easy’.”
York dissolved into tears as he recalled the events of that night and his life ever since.
“All I can remember is glass, and dirt hitting me in the face. Chad was hollering to me, and we were hollering to William Russell. I hollered out to Jimmy to get us out. I remember saying, ‘Why? Why did you have to go so fast?’ … It is an awful feeling to be there and you can’t do nothing to help out a person. He’s got three little kids he left behind. He’ll never see them grow up, get married, have their own kids.”
Many others in the courtroom began to cry during his testimony. York grew emotional when he spoke to Lee directly.
“Jimmy, I can’t say nothing bad about you, or your family,” he said.
Lee’s son Ryan Lee said that since the accident, the small town of Medway has been troubled, and that some are upset that Lee apparently hasn’t apologized to the victims and their families.
“There’s a lot of talking about how my father’s felt no remorse,” he said. “I know that the accident’s changed him. His driving record’s not much to brag about. … He’s learned his lesson, no doubt in my mind. He lives with it every day.”
Lee’s wife, Lisa Lee, said she’s heard her husband cry himself to sleep “many times” and say that he should have been the one to die that day.
“My husband is not a monster,” she said through tears. “He has feelings. … Everyone needs to remember that he loved William also. He will be living in hell every day for the rest of his life.”
Lee addressed the court in a barely audible voice, saying he had been told by his lawyer not to speak to the victims.
“William, Chad and Bill were like my kids,” he said. “I can’t bring [William] back. He was a good friend. He never said nothing bad against nobody. I can’t turn back time, but there’s no excuse for it.”
Donna Russell said after the hearing that she was surprised, but relieved, to hear Lee’s apology.
“He showed a lot more remorse than I’ve seen in any of it,” she said.