Repeat DUI offender gets 17 years in SCDOT roadside death

jmonk@thestate.comOctober 3, 2013 

A 39-year-old Lexington County painting contractor with a DUI history was sentenced to 17 years in prison Thursday for killing an S.C. Department of Transportation road worker while driving impaired in December on Interstate 20.

In pronouncing sentence on Thomas Stafford, state circuit Judge Robert Hood said he was weighing the obvious good in Stafford’s life, with his history of repeated disregard for others while driving.

The victim, Nicholas Johnson, two days shy of his 22nd birthday, was on I-20 “trying to make our highways and our roads safer,” Hood noted, while Stafford was a good worker, a caring father to two daughters who need him and was willing to accept responsibility for killing Johnson.

“This is one of the more emotional cases I’ve had to handle,” Hood told a small but crowded courtroom.

Noting that Stafford had a 2010 DUI conviction and was charged with another DUI just weeks before he killed Johnson, Hood said Stafford “made the decision to drive while you knew you were abusing Xanax and methadone, while you were going to a job site to work.”

Earlier in the hearing, at the Lexington County Judicial Center, Stafford’s attorney Anna Good told Hood that Stafford had been taking medication for pain after a 2011 back injury and became addicted to it. To wean himself from addiction, he entered a methadone program. To ease the pain, he got a prescription for Xanax.

Methadone is a narcotic used in drug detoxification programs. Xanax is used to treat anxiety and depression.

Eleventh Circuit prosecutor Rick Collins told Hood the two drugs should never be taken together — and certainly not by any driver.

Collins also said that on the day of the accident, DOT workers had put up highly visible signs to warn approaching vehicles of the road work and that Johnson was wearing a bright orange reflective safety vest.

“The only possible way this could have happened is if you are driving under the influence,” Collins told Hood.

Hood said if there was a good side to this case, it was that two motorists who saw Stafford’s Nissan SUV smash into Johnson gave chase to the painter and forced him to stop.

Once Brett Blanks and Charlie Bishop stopped the fleeing Stafford on I-20, they took his car keys so he couldn’t escape, S.C. Highway Patrol 1st Sgt. Chris Collins told the judge before a sentenced was pronounced.

Hood said, “If nothing else, it’s a glimmer of hope that there are people in our community who are willing to do the right thing in an extremely dangerous situation. ... They didn’t know who they would encounter or what, if anything, he might have on him.”

When he was killed, Johnson was part of a DOT crew clearing debris from I-20 near the Richland-Lexington county line.

Highway Patrol 1st Sgt. Chris Shelton and family members of the deceased asked Hood to give the maximum 25-year sentence.

Defense lawyer Good asked for no more than five years.

Johnson’s mother, Rene, read a letter from the victim’s 11-year-old cousin, Robert, whose letter said in part, “This man has many DUIs and goes and kills my cousin ... I know a 5th-grader doesn’t know everything, but I know for sure this man should be in jail. Not a minute goes by without me thinking of my favorite cousin in the world.”

In a brief statement, Stafford apologized, saying that if he could trade places with Johnson, he would.

“My heart is heavy with pain,” he said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, God bless.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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