The man whose drunken driving killed a woman in front of her children will serve up to seven years in prison, and several of her family and friends think that isn’t long enough.
Steven Willis, 39, of Maryville pleaded guilty in March to one count of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol, resulting in death. Willis was driving a 2014 Chevrolet northbound on Interstate 55 at about 8 p.m. on Oct. 22, 2015, when he hit Samantha Miller’s car, which was broken down by the side of the road.
Miller, 27, was underneath the car, attempting to repair it while her three children waited inside it. Miller was pronounced dead at the scene, and the children sustained injuries.
A News-Democrat investigation showed that Willis received at least 40 traffic citations from 1994 to 2016 in Madison and St. Clair counties. Most of those citations resulted in “court supervision,” so they never impacted his official driving record.
During Willis’ sentencing hearing Thursday, prosecutor Crystal Uhe mentioned those tickets as a possible aggravating factor calling for a larger sentence. While none of them were felonies, she said, she did not believe they should be ignored.
“He has a history of disregarding everyone else’s safety on the road,” Uhe said. “This tragic end was the result of a series of choices … He had ample opportunity to change his behavior.”
Every day I see in his eyes the hurt.
Barry Monroe, speaking of Samantha Miller’s oldest child.
But defense attorney Mike Mettes said Willis was a good man who made a “tragic mistake.” He argued that the tickets were all for petty offenses like speeding, and none were related to alcohol. Other than the tickets, he said, Willis had led “an exemplary life,” and asked the judge to find exceptional circumstances to allow for Willis to receive probation.
Madison County Associate Judge Neil Schroeder disagreed, stating that he did not believe the circumstances warranted probation. But he also did not believe Willis’ driving record constituted an aggravating factor, since none of them had to do with alcohol.
“Nothing that happens here today is going to make Ms. Miller’s family and friends whole again,” Schroeder said. “The court doesn’t expect that to happen.”
But as Schroeder read the sentence of seven years in prison, the family expressed dismay, sobbing and protesting. One woman was removed by court bailiffs as she protested with an expletive.
Barry Monroe, Miller’s father, said he would have preferred that Willis receive 11 years in prison. He referred to Willis’ sentence as “a smack on the wrist.”
Monroe said the children have been struggling emotionally since their mother’s death. The oldest child used to be a good student, he said, but has lost interest in school and doesn’t have much direction anymore. “Every day I see in his eyes the hurt,” Monroe said.
The children live with their father; the Millers were divorced, but Monroe said both of them worked together well to raise their children. Samantha Miller was working at a nursing home and at a laundromat while also attending classes at Southwestern Illinois College and skating on the Confluence Crush roller derby team as “Slam Van Diesel.”
Several of the family members and friends attending the sentencing wore shirts that read, “In memory of Slam” or had Samantha Miller’s dates of birth and death on them.
It’s not close enough to what I deserve... No parent should have to bury their child.
Steven Willis, on his potential sentence
Miller was in the process of getting back on her feet after her divorce, according to her family. She and the kids briefly lived with her parents, but had just that month rented a house for them to have their own place. Moving day was a week before Samantha’s death.
The Miller children were not present in the courtroom. Other family members wept, both during the sentencing and during Willis’ statement. He did not address the judge, but turned to the family and spoke toward them.
“I can’t ask for forgiveness. I don’t expect that,” Willis said. “There is not a minute that has gone by without me regretting what has happened.”
Willis said he knew the maximum penalty was 14 years. “It’s not close enough to what I deserve,” he said. “No parent should have to bury their child.”
We’ve spent decades fighting to reduce the incidents of DUI, and the injuries and the lost lives that can result from it, and yet we still stand here today with three young children who received a life sentence without their mother because of the terrible actions of this defendant.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons
There was a long silence, as Willis remained standing, looking down before he spoke again. “I feel I deserve no less,” he said. “Too many lives were impacted here… There’s no words that can bring any of this back. I can only say I’m sorry.”
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons hugged Barry Monroe after the sentence was read as Monroe teared up. “Clearly we believed a longer sentence was appropriate,” Gibbons said after the sentence was passed. “We’ve spent decades fighting to reduce the incidents of DUI, and the injuries and the lost lives that can result from it, and yet we still stand here today with three young children who received a life sentence without their mother because of the terrible actions of this defendant.”
The DUI charge is a Class 2 felony. Willis will be required to serve 85 percent of his sentence based on behavior, which means he may be out in a little less than six years.
Willis has already settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Samantha Miller’s children. The suit was filed by the children’s father, Joshua Miller, agains Willis and the Hangar, a tavern near Willis’ employer at the time, Jet Aviation Inc. The suit was settled by the various insurance companies in May 2016, with various payouts approximating $500,000 toward the care and education of the children.