Former Medway Selectman James Lee could get up to 35 years in prison if his rejection of an offer to serve six years for a fatal 2008 truck accident backfires at trial, Waldo County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said Wednesday.
Lee was charged with manslaughter and aggravated driving to endanger after the pickup truck he was driving veered into trees off a Monroe road on Sept. 22, 2008, killing 28-year-old William Russell and injuring two other passengers and himself.
In a plea agreement negotiated by his lawyer and presented to Waldo County Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm on Tuesday, Lee agreed to plead guilty to both charges in exchange for a 12-year sentence with all but four years suspended. But Hjelm rejected the plea, stating that a 10-year sentence with all but six years suspended would be more appropriate.
Because of his rejection of the plea agreement, Hjelm was obliged to give Lee the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea, Rushlau said, and Lee did, though Lee also could have accepted the six years.
The case is now due to go to trial next year.
Lee faces up to 30 years in jail on the manslaughter charge and up to five years for aggravated driving to endanger, according to the district attorney.
Rushlau seemed content that his case was strong enough to earn a conviction.
“Things can happen to your evidence. Witnesses can disappear. But I have no expectation that anything like that will happen in this case,” Rushlau said Wednesday.
However, Rushlau and Lee’s attorney, Marvin H. Glazier, must try to resolve the case through plea negotiation, Rushlau said, and the six-year sentence, or something else below the maximum, remains on the table.
“Ordinarily the parties are always obligated to continue negotiations right until trial. In our system, you always have many more cases than you can try,” Rushlau said. “This is a case where we could, in theory, continue negotiations, but Justice Hjelm is likely to be the judge [in the next trial], so that does limit what likely sentence will be accepted.”
Glazier did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment on Wednesday. Lee, who expressed deep remorse for the accident in court on Tuesday, has otherwise declined to comment since the accident occurred.
The five state convictions Rushlau’s research has found where speeders have been convicted of manslaughter have drawn sentences of nine months to eight years, he said.
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. Lee’s driving record carries 36 traffic violations from 1986 to 2008, including 25 for speeding, which Hjelm cited as among his reasons for rejecting the four-year prison sentence.
“He’s a smart person,” Hjelm said Tuesday of Lee. “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.”
In Lee’s defense, 32 letters were written describing his character in glowing terms or describing his civic service as a business owner or 10-year member of the Board of Selectmen. They described him as a hardworking, caring man who grieved the accident deeply.
Amy York, whose 38-year-old husband, William, suffered a broken back in the accident, thinks a six-year sentence would be fair.
“We would hope that he would take this deal to make this easier for all of the children involved,” York said Wednesday.