The prosecution and defense starkly disagreed on one word and what’s best for one group of people during the sentencing for a Summerfield woman who earlier pleaded guilty to driving drunk in a crash that killed her husband and injured her children.
Judge Steven McGlynn sentenced Jennifer Sawyer, now 33, to five years in the Department of Corrections to be served at 85 percent.
The lawyers disagreed on whether the crash on April 30, 2017, that killed Ernest Lee Sawyer, Jr., and injured two of the three children was an “accident” — and what was best for the children of Jennifer and Ernest Sawyer.
“This was a foreseeable consequence of terrible decisions,” said Assistant State’s Attorney John Trippi. Jennifer Sawyer had, in the four years prior to the fatal crash, a steady number of “missed opportunities and warning signs” that her behavior needed to change, he said, including second-chance probations intended to help her through drug treatment.
On the day of the crash, she downed a beer and a shot of liquor before getting driving the family’s GMC. Trippi said in earlier court proceedings that Sawyer was also under the influence of drugs.
“She is not an evil monster or cold-blooded murderer,” said her defense attorney, Erica Szewczyk. “This was an accident.”
Her children need her, Szewczyk and Sawyer told the judge in their statements. Jennifer Sawyer’s four children are now living with her sister in North Carolina, and Sawyer says her children are “always in trouble.”
“With eight children (in the home), I know it’s overwhelming. I fell like (my children) are being treated unfairly,” she said. One of her children has rods in her arm from a trampoline accident that should have been removed six months ago and have not been, she said.
Family members of Ernest Sawyer Jr. filled the courtroom Wednesday afternoon. Only his mother, Paula Butler, read a victim impact statement, but it included letters from the mother of Ernest Sawyer Jr.’s oldest daughter and from his father.
Butler said she and her two children and grandchildren were close before the crash. Because they lived next door to one another, she would see or talk to Ernest and her grandchildren daily. Now she talks to them on the phone a couple times a week, and saw them for only a month during the summer.
“All I do now is work and sleep,” she said, saying that his sudden death “caused a big hole in our lives.”
“Losing a child is a pain I cannot put into words,” she said.
Ernest Lee Sr. wrote that he wanted to see Sawyer punished by serving time, but that she would face a higher power in time.
Szewczyk presented letters in support of Jennifer Sawyer, including proof that she’s attended Bible study, become a volunteer chaplain at the St. Clair County Jail, and attended Alcohol Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“I know what I did was wrong,” she told the judge. “I’m trying to piece my family back together, but it’s hard from behind bars.”
Trippi said factors that should influence the judge’s decision included that her conduct caused a death, that children were injured, that the vehicle reached more than 96 mph in a zone marked at 55, that she had prior criminal activity and that a 10-year sentence would deter others from similar crimes.
“This community and every community needs reminding,” he said. “A sentence to the department of corrections delivers the message.”
Trippi said only “extraordinary” circumstances should compel the judge to hand down a lesser sentence, and wanting to be out of jail and children needing parents were not extraordinary.
“What is extraordinary is that no one else was killed” either in the vehicle or elsewhere on the road, he said.
McGlynn handed down his sentence by saying that “the separation of children from the Sawyer family weighs on my mind.”
Butler is not entirely pleased by the sentence.
“It ain’t what I wanted, but I didn’t expect to get what I wanted,” she said, adding that the two years of supervised probation after the time served will be a factor.
“All of us who know her know she will not complete that.”
Jennifer Sawyer will get credit for the 446 days she has served waiting for trial and sentencing. The sentencing range was from probation to 14 years in prison.