Susan Samples, Target 8 investigator -
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) -- Under a plea deal, a repeat drunken driver who hit and killed a Grand Rapids grandmother could be ordered to 2.5 to just under five years in prison.
In Kent County Circuit Court Thursday afternoon, 51-year-old James Michael Williams pleaded guilty to operating while intoxicated causing death
Williams was driving east on Knapp Street in Grand Rapids Township around 1 a.m. Dec. 22, 2016, when he ran a red light at the East Beltline and plowed into a vehicle driven by Judy Besemer. Besemer, a 62-year-old grandmother of seven, died hours later at the hospital.
Williams told Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul Sullivan that he had seven or eight beers "throughout the day" before the crash. Tests that night put Williams' blood alcohol content level at .22 and .23, nearly three times the legal limit to drive.
"It's rough to see the person that took away a family member and they're still walking around," Besemer's sister, Mary Wiseman, said. "That's the hard part."
In exchange for Williams' guilty plea, Kent County prosecutors dropped a charge of operating on a suspended, revoked or denied license causing death.
"My offer was intended to ensure that James Williams would be a facing a prison sentence and be a convicted felon, and avoid the risk of a verdict on suspended causing death or other lesser offense, which would have called for a potential jail sentence instead of prison," Assistant Prosecutor Alex Grimes explained in an email to Target 8.
While sentencing guidelines call for Williams to be sentenced to between 2.5 and 4.75 years in prison, the judge is allowed to exceed the suggested penalty. OWI causing death carries a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Grimes said if Williams were convicted at trial, the guidelines would have been 43 to 86 months (about 3.5 to 7 years) in prison instead of 29 to 57 months (about 2.5 to 4.75 years).
But the prosecutor's office told Target 8 that the case had some weaknesses that could have proven problematic if the case went to trial. There was no autopsy on Besemer's body and police did not take measurements at the scene of the accident at Knapp and East Beltline.
"The police report indicates that at the scene of the crash, it did not appear that Ms. Besemer's injuries were life-threatening," Grimes said. "Because she died at the hospital, rather than at the scene, a determination as to cause of death was made based upon a review of the medical records rather than an autopsy."
The defense could have used the absence of an autopsy or scene measurements to try to raise reasonable doubt.
Thursday's guilty plea marks Williams's third drunken driving conviction. He was convicted in 1989 and again in 1995.
Target 8 previously discovered a third DUI arrest in 2010 never led to criminal charges. In the 2010 case, Williams blew a BAC of .25, which was later confirmed by a blood test at the hospital. The Kent County Sheriff's Department told Target 8 it never sought a warrant due to a gap in its record-keeping system, a loophole officials say they have since closed.
As for the 2017 case, Grimes told Target 8 that he's "satisfied" with the plea deal. Besemer's children agreed to the deal, though they described their support as "reluctant."
"The offer was made after consultation with and approval from the victim's children," Grimes wrote in an email. "I am satisfied with the plea deal and the potential sentence, as, given the case's weaknesses, it presents a fair resolution to the case."
One West Michigan judge said Thursday the Williams' case is more evidence that the state needs to toughen its drunken driving laws overall. Barry County District Court Judge Michael Schipper is calling on state lawmakers to increase penalties for drunken driving, especially in cases of repeat offenders and crashes that cost lives.
"The max guidelines should be more than 15, and when someone is killed the guidelines should definitely be more than two to four years," said Barry County District Judge Michael Schipper.
"That's crazy," he added. "Nothing will change until the laws get tougher. The laws reflect how serious we are about drunk driving. That's why we're almost last in the nation (based on the strength of the state's drunken driving laws) as ranked by (Mothers Against Drunk Driving)."
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