By Kristin Zachary
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
A driver who pleaded guilty to killing an East Carolina University student in a rear-end crash said Monday he wished he had died instead.
James Caleb Cannon, 21, pleaded guilty in District Court to misdemeanor death by vehicle in the Oct. 23 wreck he said was an accident.
Ashley Steven Smith, 32, a senior at ECU, was killed in the wreck, and his family pleaded with a District Court judge to sentence Cannon to the lengthiest jail term time allowed.
Cannon, of 7269 Stokestown-St. Johns Road, Grifton, faced 150 days in jail and was sentenced by Judge David Leech to 75 days in prison. That sentence was suspended, and 18 months supervised probation was imposed.
“I want to apologize with everything I have from the bottom of my heart,” Cannon said. “I don’t want to live with what happened. I’d do anything I can to try to make it up to the family.
“I wished it was me,” he said. “I told the police officers I wished it was him giving the statement and not me.”
Smith was stopped in his 2000 Honda hybrid car at a red light on N.C. 11 North when he was rear-ended by a 1997 Jeep driven by Cannon. Officers estimate Cannon was traveling 55 mph when he crashed into Smith, of 3894 Countryaire Drive, Ayden.
Cannon was charged on Nov. 14 with misdemeanor death by vehicle, a charge Smith’s family said was too lenient.
“My brother was hit so hard that his skull was knocked off his spine,” Aleania Smith said during proceedings Monday. She said a civil case is under way, and the family believes Cannon was traveling at a speed greater than 55 mph.
She also alleges that Cannon admitted to taking Tramadol and Ativan the day of the crash. She said the impairment should have resulted in a felony death by vehicle charge, which carries a greater sentence of up to 88 months.
“My family has been fractured by my brother’s death,” Aleania Smith said. “Devastated doesn’t even begin to describe.” Her brother was double-majoring in mechanical engineering and physics.
“He didn’t deserve this,” she said. “He was simply going home to take a nap between classes. He did nothing wrong. He was at a stoplight.”
Sonja Ragan said her son, known as “Ash,” was intelligent, kind, inspiring, charismatic and inquisitive, and his death has been life-changing for her. “He gave so much meaning to my life,” she said. “My ears ache to hear his voice, to hear his laugh.
“My son was a fine young man who found himself on a journey in life that was going to take him somewhere special,” Ragan said. He planned to obtain his doctorate degree following his graduation from ECU,” she said.
“All of this I will not get to see because he was taken away,” she said. “… I don’t understand how Mr. Cannon’s actions could be considered less than a felony. A car is a weapon that needs to be operated by a mature, focused and well-functioning individual.”
Ragan’s daughter-in-law, Rebecca Smith, said she met Ashley Smith in high school and they “quickly became two peas in a pod.” They had been together 16 years, half of their lives, when he died. “We had a great future ahead of us. We had a plan, and we had goals, but in the blink of an eye, that was ripped away by Mr. James Cannon,” she said.
The wreck was an accident, Cannon said, crying as his mother and father stood with their arms around him. He said it happened because he looked down to change the radio station. He apologized to the Smith family and said the incident has “completely damaged” him as well.
“For a while, I felt worthless as a human being for having done such a thing,” he said. Through volunteer time at The Salvation Army and at a rest home in Grifton since the wreck, Cannon, known as “Caleb,” has been reminded he is a good-hearted person.
He said he was not impaired and had taken the medication prescribed to him before 7 a.m. that day. He said he told law enforcement and paramedics at the scene of the medication, but the officials said he was not impaired and did not test him.
“It only takes looking away for just one moment, and it happens in an instant,” he said. “We all make mistakes, and I’m just human. I just can’t apologize enough to the family for my actions.”
Glenda Cannon, his mother, said when her son called after the wreck, he said, ‘Mom, I wish it was me. He won’t wake up, Mom. He won’t wake up.’
“Caleb has been punished,” she said. “He’s been punished in many ways. He don’t eat; he don’t sleep. … He has prayed to God, and he has prayed to die. He’s hurt. His whole heart’s hurt.”
In addition to 18 months supervised probation, Cannon, who received a prayer for judgment in 2008 for reckless driving, will pay court costs, surrender his driver’s license for a year and must complete 150 hours of community service. He was credited for 80 hours already completed.
Cannon also is to be evaluated for “emotional difficulties in dealing with the death caused by the motor vehicle collision,” Leech said. The judge said he has handled a number of death by vehicle cases in his 20 years on the bench.
“They all leave me with a feeling of great inadequacy,” he said. “Folks come to court for justice, and in most cases justice and what is justice is something I feel like I can accomplish … That’s not the case in a situation like this. Justice would be bringing back Ashley Smith and that just is something I cannot do.”
Contact Kristin Zachary at email@example.com and 252-329-9566 and follow her on Twitter @kzacharygdr.
via The Daily Reflector.