Family shocked by vehicular homicide sentence

Becky Campbell • Jul 17, 2013 at 9:52 PM

The family of a young woman killed by a drunken driver more than two years ago was shocked when a judge sentenced the man who killed her to serve only 90 days of a nine year prison sentence at a hearing in Jonesborough Tuesday.

As the ruling by Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood sunk in with Tonya Martin’s family, the wife and daughters of David Billings wiped tears from their eyes.

Billings, now 50, of 509 Brown Place, Mountain City, pleaded guilty earlier this year to vehicular homicide and vehicular assault.

Billings was charged in the Dec. 3, 2010, head-on crash on Bobby Hicks Highway that killed Tanya K. Martin, 27, of No. 30 Hidden Brook Lane, Gray, and injured her 6-year-old daughter.

A blood test on Billings after the crash showed he had a .06 blood alcohol level as well as a mixture of amphetamine, methamphetamine and two other medications. Investigators found numerous beer bottles in Billings’ truck as well as a full six-pack still “cold to the touch,” according to testimony.

After more than an hour of testimony from Martin’s sister, fiancé, mother and 8-year-old daughter and Billings’ two adult daughters and wife — as well as a statement by Billings — Blackwood sentenced him to nine years for Martin’s death and three years on the assault.

The second charge was for injuries suffered by Martin’s oldest daughter, 6 years old at the time, who was in a child safety seat secured behind Martin as she drove down Bobby Hicks Highway.

Blackwood then said the sentences would run concurrent, which meant an effective sentence of nine years, then announced that because of Billings’ exemplary life detailed in testimony and a pre-sentence report the sentence was suspended to 90 days.

Sheila Billings testified that her husband of 31 years is a man she respects, but acknowledged she and he both knew he had committed a terrible act. She shed the first light on why her husband had a mixture of drugs and alcohol in his system the night before.

Billings, who works as a millwright, was trying to finish up an out-of-town job in South Carolina the week before the crash and a co-worker gave him a drug that was supposed to give him the energy to get finished so he could get back home for a job starting in Kingsport the next week.

That drug was apparently methamphetamine, although no one confirmed that during the hearing. Billings had worked that day in Kingsport, then stopped by his youngest daughter’s residence to let her dog out before he was supposed to meet his wife at their oldest daughter’s home in Boones Creek.

But he never got that far. In his statement to the court, Billings said that after leaving his youngest daughter’s home, where he had drank the beer, he went through a fast food restaurant drive-through for dinner. He said he remembers pulling out from that restaurant, but nothing else until medics were talking to him after the wreck.

Numerous motorists had called 911 that night to report a possible drunken driver that had turned from Highway 36 onto Bobby Hicks Highway. A Washington County sheriff’s deputy was on the four-lane highway looking for the drunk driver when the wreck happened.

Billings crossed into oncoming traffic and nearly hit several other cars before hitting Martin’s vehicle head-on.

Martin was pronounced dead at the crash scene and her daughter was taken to the Johnson City Medical Center by Washington County/Johnson City EMS.

Billings was flown to JCMC by helicopter. He was treated for injuries and blood was drawn for an alcohol-content test.

Aisha Martin, Tonya Martin’s older sister, said in the hearing that her sister’s death had torn the family apart and impacted an entire community. In a statement she read from the witness stand, she said she didn’t want Billings to rot in jail, but urged Blackwood to impose some type of rehabilitative community service on the man who killed her sister.

Elizabeth Martin, said her daughter’s death had devastated her. She said she talked to her younger daughter at 3 p.m. the day of the crash and they discussed an upcoming Christmas shopping trip.

“She said, ‘Mama this is going to be the best Christmas I’ve ever had.’ Little did she know,” that she wouldn’t be around for Christmas that year, Elizabeth Martin said.

Broderick Dean testified that Billings took “my girlfriend, the mother of my children, my soul mate, my lover. Everything, everything.”

His anger was evident as he addressed the court and Billings.

“The impact this has had on me and my family is deep. It cannot be explained. Our lives have been changed. Tonya’s life has been taken,” he said.

“The way I feel about this man is he’s truly, truly impacted my family in a negative way. There’s always a silver lining in every story, but this is hard to swallow... me laying in bed at night missing my woman, thinking about what could have been, what should have been and it’ll never happen. But you’ll sit there and you’ll do that. You’ll be able to do that. You’ll be able to kiss your wife.”

When Billings’ daughters testified, they described a father who was very involved in their lives — even though he worked out of town most of the time they were growing up — and a man who worked hard to provide for them and taught them values as well as how to do things. They also testified they had never seen their father drink alcohol. It was something he had apparently given up because he didn’t want his daughters to think it was OK to drink, his wife testified. After the girls were grown, Billings would have a couple of beers on occasion, she said.

Sheila Billings said she always talked with her husband about decisions that involved the kids, and also made the girls ask their father’s permission as well as hers when they wanted to do something.

In delivering the sentence, Blackwood said this is a case where “no one wins.”

“There is no way that any family or any defendant can look to a court and expect that court could take into consideration each individual’s concept of what justice is,” the judge said.

He urged both families to look to a higher power in their lives to come to terms with this kind of “senseless tragedy.”

Blackwood said Billings’ decision to drive that night “absolutely ruined a family … but this is an aberrant behavior on his part. Nobody’s going to get over what we do here today. Nobody. All this court can do is rely on an inherent sense of right and wrong.”

Billings remained free on bond after the hearing and will report to jail to serve his 90 days on Aug. 16.

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