Sentencing in cyclist wreck ends year of heartbreak for two families

Daniel Johnson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

 

AIKEN — The family of Dr. Matthew Burke said they received a “measure of justice” Tuesday with the sentencing of the driver who fatally hit him last October on Beech Island Avenue.

For the driver, Daniel Johnson, it was the end of a yearlong struggle with his guilt and a chance to prove he wants to take responsibility for his actions, his attorney, Jim Huff, said.

After an hour of tearful pleas from both families, Aiken County Judge Jack Early said the negotiated plea was “fair and proper” after balancing out the facts.

“Hopefully it sends a message to others on the highway. … You have to do more than pay attention,” Early said.

Johnson pleaded guilty Monday to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter from his indicted charge of reckless homicide. He will serve 90 days in jail over the weekends, followed by five years’ probation and a suspended driver’s license.

Solicitor General Strom Thurmond Jr.’s description of the facts of the case gave a preview of what would have been presented had the case gone to trial this week.

On Oct. 1, 2010, Burke was in a group of 15 cyclists that set out on their weekly Friday night ride from Outspokin’ Bicycles in Augusta. At 6:40 p.m., they were on a straight stretch of Beech Island Avenue, riding single file, except for Burke and another cyclist, who were two abreast in the rear.

Thurmond said he had planned to take jurors out to the road, which is long and flat.

“I thought it would help in considering the elements of the facts,” Thurmond said.

The investigation by the South Carolina Highway Patrol showed that all but two of the cyclists had flashing LED lights and that all were wearing brightly colored helmets and clothing. Troopers also hopped onto bicycles a month later at that same time of day to conduct a visibility study and found the cyclists were clearly visible, Thurmond said.

Johnson was driving his Dodge Durango when he hit five of the cyclists from behind, including Burke. He gave several conflicting statements about what happened, including that he was reaching for his sunglasses, was distracted by papers falling from his dashboard and the sun was in his eyes.

Thurmond said the sun was behind the Dodge.

Johnson apologized to the Burke family for his actions, especially to Bonnie Burke, Matthew’s widow.

“Maybe my plea today will help repair damage I have caused,” he said.

After the hearing, Huff said his client was distracted by falling paper, but that Johnson still struggled to comprehend how he could have taken a life. His father, Daniel Johnson Sr., said in court Tuesday that the family spent long hours in the backyard of their home in Beech Island praying for the Burke family.

He emphasized that he was proud of his son, saying, “Danny Johnson is a good man.”

In issuing the sentence, Early acknowledged the heartbreak shared by both families. But he said the facts show this was more than an accident.

“When it passes beyond negligence to reckless disregard, (court) is where you end up,” Early said.

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