A Louisiana truck driver charged in a fiery interstate crash that killed five nursing students in southeast Georgia was sentenced to prison Thursday – one year for each life lost – after he pleaded guilty to first-degree vehicular homicide and other crimes.
A judge gave John Wayne Johnson five years in prison plus an additional five years on probation. The plea deal with prosecutors spared Johnson, 56, of Shreveport, Louisiana, from a possible punishment of 93 years in prison if he had been convicted at a trial.
Johnson was driving on Interstate 16 west of Savannah before dawn on April 22, 2015, when his tractor-trailer smashed into traffic snarled by an unrelated wreck. The impact crushed two vehicles directly in front of Johnson’s truck, killing five student nurses. The women were commuting from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro to their shifts at a Savannah hospital, a distance of about 55 miles.
Johnson, an ex-Marine, struggled to speak when asked by the judge if he wanted to make a statement. The truck driver handed his prepared notes to his defense attorney, Edward Tolley, to read.
“I am so sorry for what happened,” Tolley read from Johnson’s notes. “I would give anything to go back and change that day. I did not intend for any of this to happen, but I accept full responsibility for it.”
Relatives of the victims hoping to learn why the crash happened got few answers from Johnson.
He had been driving all night from Mississippi to deliver a shipment of notebooks to a retailer’s warehouse in Savannah and was about 20 minutes from his destination when the crash occurred. Blood tests found no traces of drugs or alcohol, Tolley said, and cellphone records showed Johnson hadn’t made a call or sent any text messages for at least two hours.
Johnson told the judge he was cruising at 70 mph the morning of the crash, with traffic passing him, when he noticed tail lights ahead of him stopping.
“I am getting closer and closer and I am running through my head, `Why am I not stopping?”‘ Johnson said.
Superior Court Judge Robert Russell III asked Johnson why he failed to stop.
“Sir, that’s something I’ve been wrestling with since that morning,” Johnson said, telling the judge he couldn’t explain it.
Relatives of some of the victims shook their heads in the Bryan County courtroom about 30 miles west of Savannah.
Sherrin Pittman’s daughter, McKay Pittman of Alpharetta, was one of the women killed. She sobbed on the witness stand Thursday, harshly criticizing the truck driver for his lack of an explanation.
“I have lost my daughter, never to hear her say `I love you, Mommy,’ again,” Sherrin Pittman said, glaring at Johnson. “You did it and you can’t remember how you did it? Shame on you.”
When Johnson was questioned under oath last December by attorneys handling civil lawsuits in the crash, he acknowledged a prior employer had fired him for crashing his truck after he fell asleep at the wheel. But Johnson insisted he was awake when he crashed in Georgia last year.
Executives of Total Transportation of Mississippi, Johnson’s employer when the Georgia collision occurred, also acknowledged in civil depositions that they knew about Johnson’s prior crash when they hired him. The company ultimately agreed to pay $78 million to settle civil suits by the victims’ families.
Johnson was indicted last month. And prosecutors made the unusual move of also bringing criminal charges against Total Transportation as a corporation. District Attorney Tom Durden dropped his case against the company last week in exchange for Total Transportation spending an additional $200,000 to establish an education fund for student nurses.
In addition to Pittman, the young women who died in the crash were Amber DeLoach of Savannah, Emily Clark of Powder Springs, Caitlyn Baggett of Millen and Morgan Bass of Leesburg.
As she left the courthouse, Pittman’s mother said she respected the judge’s decision to give Johnson only five years in prison, but she didn’t agree with it.
“There’s probably nothing that would have made it right,” Sherrin Pittman said.
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