James Lee received the sentence in a Kennebec County courtroom after tearful statements to the family of William Russell, who was killed when Lee lost control of his truck while attempting to round a curve.
Lee was allegedly driving roughly 30 mph over the speed limit at the time of the crash.
“If I could have taken myself, I would have taken myself that night,” said Lee, a 44-year-old businessman and former selectman from Medway. “I don’t know what else to say … If there was anything I could do for William or these people, I would. I would give my life.”
Last year, Lee had pleaded guilty to the charges of felony manslaughter and aggravated driving to endanger in anticipation of receiving four years behind bars. But Lee changed his plea to not guilty — thereby triggering a trial — when Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm ruled the sentence was not long enough.
The case was gearing up for a jury trial later this month, but on Tuesday Lee changed his plea again to guilty. Hjelm imposed a sentence of 10 years in prison with all but 6 years suspended plus 4 years of probation. Lee began serving his sentence Tuesday.
According to evidence that would have been presented in a court trial, Lee was traveling 74 mph on Sept. 22, 2008, while entering a turn in the Waldo County town of Monroe. The speed limit on that stretch of road was 45 mph, and diagnostics data gathered by police from Lee’s truck indicate that he was going as fast as 84 mph moments before beginning to round the bend.
Russell, a 28-year-old employee of Lee’s who was a passenger in the truck, was killed instantly when the Chevy Silverado struck several trees and rolled over. The truck’s two other passengers — William York and Chad Brackett, both of Medway — also were injured in the crash. York suffers from long-term injuries as a result of the crash, Waldo County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau told the court on Tuesday.
Lee had 36 prior traffic violations on his record, including one conviction in 2007 for driving more than 90 mph in a 65-mph zone and another in 2008 for 89 mph in a 65-mph zone. His license had been suspended on multiple occasions.
Before the sentencing, Lee’s attorney, Jed Davis, acknowledged that the public needed to be protected from this man with “a terrible driving record.” But Davis argued that locking up Lee for six years would only punish his family and community while spending taxpayer dollars that could be put to better uses helping those in need.
“The question is: Is putting him in prison for six years the best way to deal with that?” Davis said. “We are dealing with a man who has been a credit to his community. We are dealing with a man who has been a good husband and father.”
Hjelm called Davis’ arguments of misdirecting taxpayer money “wholly inappropriate.”
“A sentence in a criminal case is required to reflect the seriousness of the criminal violation,” Hjelm said.
Lee’s sentencing came nearly a month after his attorneys successfully argued to have an anticipated jury trial moved from Waldo County to Kennebec County because of media attention to the case.
The small Augusta courtroom was filled with members of Lee’s family on one side and members of Russell’s on the other. Members of both families wiped away tears during the hearing.
While addressing the court, Lee said Russell’s death weighs heavily on him every day and that he has to take two prescription “happy pills” daily in order to help him deal with the emotions.
That comment prompted one of Russell’s family members to shout, “You can’t even imagine what it is like to deal with that,” before walking out of the room.