A Kennewick man who killed a pedestrian one year ago told a judge Friday that it is time for him to “pay the price” for hitting the woman when he was driving nearly double the speed limit.
Michael S. Johnson, 47, choked back tears as he acknowledged he must go to prison for the death of Nina Howard.
Johnson, who was supported in court by more than a half-dozen loved ones, will turn to his faith through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as he serves the one-year, nine-month term behind bars, he said.
“I’m gonna take this as a mission for me to serve cause it will be a lifelong mission, as it has been already,” he said.
Johnson apologized to Howard’s family, Kennewick police detectives, the prosecutor, his attorney and his family. He said his wife is the best thing to ever happen to him, and told her “I’m sorry for what I’ve done.”
Howard’s children chose not to attend the sentencing hearing in Benton County Superior Court. They were in court for Johnson’s guilty plea to vehicular homicide in March and “were very strongly affected by that experience,” said Deputy Prosecutor Megan Killgore.
Johnson wished Howard’s family had been in court Friday so he could tell them in person how he felt and “that it’s important to be a man” by accepting responsibility for the April 2014 crash, he said.
“I don’t have any magical thing that will make it all go away,” Johnson said, as he faced Judge Alex Ekstrom. “I know that Nina had a special spirit. I don’t know much about her but I know that she really liked having her family around her. She liked people, and she was well-known for that.”
It has taken Johnson a long time to recognize that he must move forward because the fatal collision has caused a lot of post-traumatic stress problems for him, he said.
“Hopefully some day I will see Nina in a different place and tell her face-to-face that I’m sorry, because I really mean it,” he said. “She paid a heavy price, and now it’s time for me to pay the price, whatever that is.”
Johnson was racing his teen son on busy West 27th Avenue when his 1966 Chevy Nova slammed into Howard.
The 52-year-old Kennewick woman was not in a crosswalk. She usually visited the LAO Buddhist Temple and was crossing the street west of the Ely Street intersection.
Attorney Larry Stephenson said his client knew the second he hit Howard that she would not survive the impact.
Johnson had just picked up the Chevy from an auto shop across Highway 395 and was heading in the direction of Vancouver Street. He was following his son’s 1989 Ford Mustang.
Witnesses traveling in the same direction as the Chevy and Ford reported that the cars appeared to be “street racing” in the two eastbound lanes. The vehicles accelerated into the right lane to pass a slower-moving wood chipper truck and, once in front of the truck, the Chevy pulled back into the left lane to go around the Ford, according to police and court documents.
A motorist reported seeing Howard trying to run away once she saw the Chevy speeding toward her, but it was too late. The Chevy then slid sideways across the westbound lane before coming to a stop, documents said.
Johnson stopped at the scene and waited for police to arrive. He was unable to give an exact speed to investigators because the speedometer didn’t work on his car.
Police later calculated that he was going at least 72 mph in the 40-mph zone. A defense expert confirmed the police findings were completely accurate, and that’s when Johnson decided to admit his reckless actions instead of taking the case to trial, Stephenson said.
Johnson’s sentence is at the bottom of the standard range for vehicular homicide, with two years and three months at the top.
Killgore said Howard’s family agreed with the recommended sentence.
Ekstrom — who let out a heavy sigh before sentencing Howard — said Johnson could be looking at the longer prison term if it weren’t for the victim’s two sons being OK with the resolution.
“No amount of jail time is fair compensation for taking her life as you did. But Nina Howard clearly continues to have a profound influence over her community, and she’s done this because she’s inspired others to ask for mercy on your behalf,” Ekstrom said.
“At some point you will be released from custody and it will be earlier than it could have been,” the judge continued. “For each of those days that follow, you should start each one of those days contemplating what could have been.”
Everyone has experienced driving the speed limit on a city street and having another vehicle “blow by us,” Ekstrom said.
“When this happens there is almost a universal reaction, ‘That young man is going to kill somebody,’” Ekstrom said. “We make that assumption for the same reason that insurance rates are highest for teenage males.”
It’s never acceptable to learn it was an adult racing his son, Ekstrom said.
Stephenson said his client made an egregious decision that day by “showing off with his son with his hot rod.” But the lawyer added that every single driver out on the road has done something stupid or made a mistake at one point that could have led to something tragic.
“We all have an obligation to be very careful. He wasn’t careful, and he’s paying a very good price for it,” Stephenson said. “If there can be some good out of it is to have people learn just a little bit, have them think about it, because we are all subject to lapses in judgment, lapses of attention out there.”