Doctor jailed in fatal crash

The Baltimore Sun

A former Johns Hopkins Hospital pathologist could serve as little as one year in prison for his role in a head-on crash on the Jones Falls Expressway that left a 22-year-old woman with injuries that later killed her.

Dr. Todd B. Sheridan, 32, was sentenced yesterday after pleading guilty in January to automobile manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol when he crashed into Letrice Nicole Smith's car while driving the wrong way on the expressway in the early hours of July 8, 2006.

Before the sentence was imposed, the doctor, tears running down his face, begged for the Smith family's forgiveness.

"I'm so sorry that this ever happened," he said, turning from the defense table to the rows of Smith's equally tearful relatives behind him. "If I could put myself in her place, I would do it in a second."

As he struggled with his composure, Sheridan added, "I remember her every day, and I pray for her every day."

Smith died after complications from injuries to her right leg caused a blood clot to travel to her lungs. The defense maintained that improper treatment at Union Memorial Hospital, and not the accident itself, caused her death, a crucial point in the relatively mild sentence imposed yesterday.

The sentencing was nearly derailed by a defense request yesterday morning to withdraw the guilty plea and proceed with a trial. The request was based on information gathered for a civil complaint filed by the Smith family against the hospital and two of its physicians. The family claims the doctors failed to test for clots, did not prescribe blood thinners that might have prevented them and discharged Smith too early.

But in an effort to avoid a trial, Circuit Judge Robert Kershaw ordered the defendant; his attorney, Craig M. Kadish; prosecutor Lisa Phelps, and the victim's immediate relatives to meet behind closed doors to hash out a resolution.

They reappeared two hours later in the judge's courtroom to tell him that they had done so. As part of the agreement, Kershaw sentenced Sheridan to 10 years' imprisonment, suspending all but three years. After one year, however, Sheridan will be able to appeal for a revision of the sentence, which, if he is deemed eligible, will enable him to be released for a five-year, intensively supervised probation.

He would not go back to prison if he remains alcohol- and drug-free, continues attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, performs 500 hours of community work, volunteers to help the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving and contributes at least $5,000 to a scholarship in the victim's name at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. Smith attended the school with the intention of becoming a forensic scientist.

If Sheridan fails to meet any of the court's demands, he could be forced to serve the entire 10-year sentence, Kershaw told him. If he succeeds, the felony will be expunged from his record, which could help him resume his career.

Phelps, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case, said after the hearing that the sentence was the "result of intense personal negotiation between the state, the victim's family and the defendant himself."

It was unusual, Phelps said, to put the parties together to negotiate "an acceptable solution for everyone" -- something she had not seen in seven years as a prosecutor.

The sentence was also an acknowledgment that going to trial was risky because the Smith family's allegations against Union Memorial might lead a jury to conclude Sheridan was not responsible for Smith's death and would receive no punishment at all, Phelps said.

Members of Smith's family said they were satisfied with the arrangement. "No amount of time will bring her back," Smith's twin sister, Sharice, 25, said after the hearing. "But justice is being served by him doing some jail time."

Earlier, addressing the court, Sharice Smith broke down as she began reading a statement. For a minute or two, she was unable to continue. A family lawyer, Debra Thomas, consoled her and offered to read it, but Smith took a deep breath and continued.

"Before we could talk we finished each other's sentences," said Smith, the older twin by six minutes. "Nikki was a kindhearted, love-filled individual with a bright future ahead of her. ... We had so much more to do."

She also mentioned her cousin David Johnson, who was in court and had been riding with her sister on the night of the accident. "He sustained permanent injuries and endured countless surgeries," she said of Johnson, who did not address the court.

Glenda Johnson, the mother of David Johnson, said her son, now 34, was at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for three weeks after the crash and "has metal bars throughout his body." She told Sheridan it was appropriate that he was "going to jail to think about what you've done."

Johnson added, "Hopefully, you will make something of your life."

Sheridan had a blood-alcohol level of 0.18 percent, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent, when it was measured about four hours after the crash. His attorney conceded yesterday that the woman died because his client "didn't take his alcoholism seriously."

Sheridan had been convicted of a previous DUI offense in 2004. His 18 months of probation in that case ended eight days before the Jones Falls Expressway crash.

One of the drivers who attempted to get Sheridan's attention as he drove northward in the southbound lanes told police investigators later that Sheridan "had to be asleep" as he banged several times into the barrier separating the north- and southbound lanes.

"You could see him swaying in his seat," the driver said, according to the police report. "His head was nodding. When he would hit the barrier, he would shake his head, like, 'What was that?' and shake it off."

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