In sentencing a Baltimore man to 18 months in jail for a crash that killed the “goodwill ambassador of Glen Burnie,” Circuit Court Judge Ronald Silkworth added a specific caveat.
Johnathan Derek Simms must carry his victim’s picture for the next six years.
In an emotional hearing in Annapolis, Simms, 33, was sentenced after being convicted of negligent manslaughter in the death of 66-year-old Louisa Donner. Donner died after Simms’ vehicle struck her car head-on as he was fleeing police.
In setting aside most of the maximum 10-year prison sentence, Silkworth said he believed Simms has a future but needs to remember the damage his actions caused.
He ordered Simms to carry a wallet-sized photo of Donner wherever he goes for the length of his sentence, which also includes an additional five years of probation and 500 hours of community service.
“I don’t think you’re a bad person,” Silkworth said. “I do think there is a future for you.”
He qualified this by invoking Donner in his explanation.
“What would she think, or do, or say?” Silkworth said, adding he had a “strong sense” she’d want him “to be fair” but also see Simms “be held accountable.”
Donner’s daughter, Kerrie Donner, said she was not satisfied by the sentence.
Outside the Annapolis courtroom, she read a tearful statement describing her mother as an irreplaceable part of her life, with her sudden death further complicating ongoing issues with depression.
“I can’t count the number of times I thought, ‘Why didn’t God take me that day?’ ” she said. “I find it a constant struggle to stay here without her.”
The accident took place in April 2016. Police tried to pull Simms over for speeding, but he fled, despite having no criminal record and having nothing illegal in the car. Assistant State’s Attorney Michael McGraw said Donner, the “goodwill ambassador of Glen Burnie,” died after Simms’ vehicle struck her head-on on Aviation Boulevard.
Following sentencing, Kerrie Donner said Silkworth’s decision “wasn’t the sentence (Simms) deserved.”
Jesse Rice, Simms’ uncle, said he thought the term was consistent with the sentencing guideline and doubted a longer prison term would have helped.
“I don’t think it serves anybody,” he said.
In the hours leading up to Silkworth’s sentencing, it became clear the prevailing issue was whether Simms was remorseful.
McGraw said Simms “has failed to accept responsibility for his actions,” pointing to his not guilty plea to manslaughter charges and various defenses presented in the case. They included a psychological evaluation that found Simms had “paranoid personality disorder” and possibly had “dramatically low iron” levels at the time of the crash.
“This was a case of someone who just didn’t want to stop for the police,” McGraw said.
However, Simms spoke for several minutes before sentencing, saying he accepts Donner’s death, adding that he was confused about court proceedings.
“It didn’t feel right to say I was not guilty. I knew I was guilty,” Simms said.
Both the prosecution and defense acknowledged in their statements that Donner’s loss affects a great swath of people.
Kerrie Donner described her mother as someone who offered “a sanctuary” to her and other relatives as they were going through hard times, despite the fact Louisa Donner worked several odd jobs and had irregular hours.
She said strangers would regularly approach her mother asking for guidance or just to start a conversation, something she said was endemic of her welcoming personality.
“I’ll never be able to express everything that my mom was to me and to everyone that was around her,” her daughter said.
Fran Miller, who described herself as Louisa Donner’s “best friend for 40 years,” said she was always a kind and helpful person with “a contagious smile highlighted by” her signature “wine lipstick.”
After sentencing, Miller thanked the State’s Attorney’s Office for their handling of the case before declining to comment on the outcome.
Simms and his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Karl Gordon, painted Simms as a man who once had a promising future but has fallen down a path of self-destruction. Gordon said Simms lived out of his car after going to Frostburg State University.
Gordon called his arrest an odd case, and Simms mentioned he thought he was being pursued by a phantom black car at the time of the accident.
“I was not in my right mind. That was me crying for help,” Simms said.
In acknowledging his sentence would not satisfy everyone, Silkworth said cases like this can test a judge.
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“My job is very often difficult,” he said. “This case shows how difficult it can be.”