Walter Bell was in tears Friday morning as a Forsyth County judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
Bell, found responsible by a jury for causing a fatal wreck on Ga. 400 last summer, must serve 12 years of his sentence, with the remaining three years to be on probation.
Prior to the sentencing by Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David L. Dickinson, John McMillan spoke on behalf of his daughter, 21-year-old Jenny McMillan Gutierrez of Roswell, who was killed in the crash.
“Jenny’s elementary teacher said Jenny doesn’t walk through life, she dances,” McMillan said. “Jenny loved animals and babies … Jenny had great plans. She wanted to be a mother, she wanted to someday help her best friend open a pet resort and she wanted to be an aunt to her … niece, who was born Sept. 28, 2011.
“Jenny impacted many lives in her short time on earth.”
Bell spoke directly to the family, offering condolences in an emotional address.
“If there was anything I can do to change it now … there’s nothing I wouldn’t do,” he said. “She sounds like she was a wonderful person … I’m very sorry.”
Bell was convicted last month of homicide by vehicle in the first degree, reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident and tampering with evidence. He faced up to 31 years for all counts.
The incident occurred on Ga. 400 the morning of July 9, a Saturday.
Witnesses testified at the trial that Bell had crossed in front McMillan Gutierrez.
The prosecution asserted that Bell then hit his brakes, causing Gutierrez to lose control of her vehicle in an evasive maneuver, cross both lanes of traffic and land deep in the roadside woods.
Friday, Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Heather Chambers recommended a 20-year sentence — 15 for vehicular homicide and five for leaving the scene of an accident — with a mandated 15 years in prison.
Bell’s attorney Rafe Banks argued for what he called an appropriate sentence of 10 years — five in prison, five on probation.
He reminded Dickinson that Bell was not driving under the influence.
The judge said he recognized alcohol was not a factor, and took Bell’s lack of previous record into consideration when issuing his sentence.
“Based on your background, based on your accomplishments, you were one who, from what I understand, has never even seen a courtroom, never been arrested or convicted of any crime,” he said.
Dickinson said it remained unexplained how the incident occurred, given Bell’s clean history. But the judge said the consequences were still the same.
“Mr. Bell, I appreciate the show of remorse that you have demonstrated for this court this morning and I think the family hearing that may be of some benefit,” he said.
“But that still does not negate, or take away, the fact that the family has lost a precious family member who … was a wonderful individual — young, had her whole life ahead of her, plans that will never be met or accomplished — and it all results from a driving incident.”
After the hearing, Banks said he planned to appeal the case this week.
Pointed to a side issue, he said that had Bell returned to the scene of the incident, he would effectively have incriminated himself.
But the main point in the appeal will be whether the conviction should have been a misdemeanor instead of a felony, “which would make a huge difference,” Banks said.
“It would make a difference between the 12 years to serve and a potential 12 months to serve,” he said. “The reasoning behind that is kind of complex, but it centers around what the state actually proved, as opposed to what they charged.
“It’s unquestionably a tragedy for everyone involved and it illustrates how quickly something can go badly wrong.”