Community reaction to a 90-day jail sentence — implemented by a visiting judge in a vehicular homicide case on Tuesday — has been harsh not only toward the judge but also one of the man’s attorneys.
David Billings, 50, of Mountain City, was sentenced Tuesday to a total of nine years in prison — with all suspended except 90 days — in a Dec. 3, 2010 vehicular homicide and vehicular assault case that involved the death of 27-year-old Tanya Martin and the injury of her then-6-year-old daughter.
Billings will serve the remainder of his sentence on probation and as part of that, his driver’s license was revoked for three years. He is not eligible for a restricted license due to the offense.
On the Johnson City Press website, readers commented on the report of the 90-day sentence with things like “pitiful,” “ridiculous and sad beyond belief,” “shocked and saddened,” and “sickening.”
Other readers compared Billings’ light jail term to more harsh sentences for non-violent crimes. And others made mention that one of Billings’ attorneys, Stacy Street, is now a judge and that’s the reason for the light jail term.
But Billings’ sentence was within the guidelines set out in state law. Based on his reported family life, consistent work history and lack of a criminal background, the judge could have given him probation outright.
Billings was represented by Street and Jim Bowman. Street is now a Criminal Court judge in the First Judicial District after being appointed to that position in April.
When asked Wednesday if he felt his presence influenced the judge’s ruling in any way, Street said Blackwood is the most fair judge he’s ever seen, and that it wouldn’t have mattered if Street was at the table with Billings or not.
Street also said he made a point to not actively participate in the hearing because he didn’t want any appearance of impropriety.
“Judge (Robert) Cupp has specifically recused himself from any case where I represent the defendant. That’s why Judge Blackwood was brough in, to remove any appearance of impropriety because he’s not a fellow judge,” in this district, Street said.
“I did not participate in the hearing and that was the reason why. I had anticipated doing the sentencing hearing because I did the memorandum before I was appointed to the bench. Mr. Bowman and I agreed it would not be appropriate for me to handle the hearing,” Street said.
In fact, Street said, “I will not argue a case in front of a judge now just so there is no appearance of impropriety.”
Assistant District Attorney Ken Baldwin said there was nothing wrong with Street being at the hearing.
“The law gives him six months to wind up all of his cases. It was
appropriate for him to be there. He did not participate. He and Jim Bowman had been (Billings’) attorney since the beginning,” Baldwin said.
“I think Judge Blackwood did what he did because he felt like it was right under the law. It is a probatable offense. It is uncommon for a person to
get probation for vehicular homicide, but it’s not unheard of.”
The court had the discretion to consider all the possibilities. He made the decision he made.”
Baldwin said the DA’s office could ask the state Attorney General’s Office to appeal the case, and Baldwin said there had been some discussion in his
office Wednesday morning about that possibility.
“We can request an appeal. The Attorney General’s office in Nashville will decide if it has sufficient merit to appeal, whether the judge abused his discretion. “(Blackwood) cited the appropriate guidelines to justify his decision. That makes it very, very hard to appeal.”
For Martin’s family, what really matters is the light sentence Billings received for killing Tanya and injuring her daughter. The reality of Billings’ sentence continued to sink in Wednesday.
“He needs to go to jail, but it can’t be just jail,” said Martin’s sister, Aisha Martin. “He gets to say goodbye to his family. They should have taken him that day like he took my sister that day,” she said. Billings was not taken into custody after the hearing Tuesday. Instead, he was allowed to delay his jail sentence until Aug. 16. Aisha, who read a portion of a two-page statement during the hearing Tuesday, said she wanted more jail time for Billings, but not necessarily an extensive amount of time.
“Community service,” she said. “Give back to the community you took from. I felt like I was
saying, give his life back,” but punish him, too, she said. Ninety days is not enough for Aisha or the rest of her family.
Blackwood did not specify any type of community service or drug and alcohol counseling, but the probation department could require Billings to go to counseling.
“I agree with what’s right is right, but 90 days is not right,” Aisha Martin said.
“While I believe (Billings) needs to be placed in jail to serve his time, I want more. I want him to learn and understand what he truly did. To him, he took a life. There’s no significance to that. I want him to know who’s life he took, not her name and face, but Tanya’s and others’ stories. He took a life and for that I do not wish him damnation or rotting in a jail cell. I think the greatest gift is life, so I believe he should give his life, everyday, to families that have lost loved ones because of the same reason he took Tanya’s. Then he will truly know what he has done,” she said in her statement to Blackwood prior to the sentence being imposed.
“Martin Luther King said, ‘Justice is a temporary thing that must at last come to an end; but the conscience is eternal and will never die.’ In saying that, jail is jail and that time, however long, will end. That is the punishment, but where is the lesson or rehabilitation? In helping others who have been wronged in the same way, he will not only understand what he did, but he will grow and forgive and become a better man. To live with his own conscience is eternal and both a gift and torture.”
Aisha Martin said her family and friends of her sister hope to bring some kind of change in the law so other families don’t have the same experience they did.