The driver who hit and killed a man in front of City Hall offered an emotional courtroom apology to his victim's family Thursday, admitting that he was on drugs when he sped off Interstate 83 and into downtown.
Johnny Johnson, 44, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and possession of heroin in the April death of Matthew Hersl, a longtime finance office worker and Little Italy neighborhood association leader. He was sentenced on the spot to 11 years in prison.
Johnson, dressed in a yellow detention center uniform and glasses, stood up and turned toward the family, gesturing awkwardly with cuffed hands as he spoke. He said he never intended to hurt anyone.
"I think about you all the time," he said, "and I just wanted to face you one time and apologize for what I have done."
The proceedings offered a kind of reconciliation for Johnson and Hersl's family — who just last week were criticizing prosecutors' approach to the case.
Stephen Hersl, Matthew's brother, spoke in court first, addressing his remarks to Johnson.
"I have no hate in my body for Mr. Johnson," he said. "If someone had told me before this happened that someone had did this to my brother, I would have said that I have complete hate for that person.
"But my brother Matthew has taught me a lot in life. He was very kind and giving."
A state trooper spotted Johnson driving a black Acura recklessly behind him and watched as Johnson sped toward downtown Baltimore at up to 115 mph, veered across lanes of highway traffic to take an exit and ran a red light at Holliday and Saratoga streets, according to a statement of facts in support of the plea.
Johnson lost control of the vehicle, careening into a light pole and a tree and killing Hersl. Two people rushed to the car and held onto Johnson, who struggled and told them, "you know me, let me go."
Police said they found heroin, a burnt spoon, a smoking pipe and a syringe inside the vehicle. In the hospital later, Johnson admitted to using drugs, and tests showed that he had heroin in his system.
Johnson said at the plea hearing that the crash was entirely his fault and that his drug use led to the incident.
"I hold all the responsibility for what I did," he added. "I can't blame this on nobody."
Despite the soft words in court, the run-up to Johnson's plea hearing was marked with rancor. Hersl's family last week asked prosecutors to take the case to trial, meeting with State's Attorney's Gregg L. Bernstein to urge him not to negotiate with Johnson.
But later in the week, they said they had changed their mind. Stephen Hersl, who left the courtroom Thursday in tears, said in an interview that his mother's "health and well-being" led the family to accept the outcome.
"We don't want to make a statement on the justice part of it, we just ... feel this is best for our family," he said. "I just feel it's a time to have peace and love and … to remember our brother."
Bernstein said his office sought the maximum sentence on the two counts to which Johnson pleaded guilty, and noted that he received the longest possible term on the manslaughter charge.
Had Johnson been convicted of all the charges he faced, he could have been sentenced to 18 years in prison, Bernstein said. But he said a total of more than 14 years was unlikely because he doubted that Johnson would have gotten the maximum sentence for two separate drug possession charges.
Prosecutors asked for 14 years, Bernstein said, but Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams imposed the 11 year term.
"It's the defendant's right to plead guilty if he chooses to," Bernstein said. "The judge is the final arbiter, so to speak, of what is the appropriate sentence."
Bernstein said his office respected the judge's decision, but said the case showed that the 10-year maximum sentence for vehicular manslaughter is "woefully inadequate." He said the General Assembly should consider increasing the penalty.
While the criminal case is over, Hersl's family is still exploring whether the state trooper acted properly in how he followed Johnson's car, and could file a civil suit. Steven D. Silverman, the family's attorney, said their investigation is still ongoing.
The trooper has denied he was chasing Johnson.
"We're investigating any and all potential avenues of civil redress," Silverman said, "and upon analysis of the investigation the family will make decisions at that time."
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