Sentencing in cyclist wreck ends year of heartbreak for two families

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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.

Daniel Johnson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.  File/Staff
File/Staff
Daniel Johnson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

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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InsideTraitor
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InsideTraitor 10/18/11 - 02:38 pm
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Yikes.

Yikes.

stillamazed
1488
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stillamazed 10/18/11 - 03:16 pm
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I personally do not agree

I personally do not agree that it was more than an accident, he just wasn't paying attention and was distracted like many drivers are when they drive down the road on cell phones sending text messages. It should be a lesson to everyone that when you are behind the wheel you should be alert and paying attention to the road in front of you at all times. I still pray for both families.

Vito45
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Vito45 10/18/11 - 03:27 pm
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I agree with you stillamazed;

I agree with you stillamazed; some people may have wanted blood payment, but this was a moment of inattention that any one of us has probably been guilty of at one time or another; we just didn't have the misfortune of running up on a bicycle group when we did. There are no winners in this case, only losers. Maybe, if anything good can come from this tragedy, it will be a heightened awareness for us all of the hazards in operating both motorized and non motorized vehicles in the same space.

TK3
562
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TK3 10/18/11 - 04:46 pm
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If it "really" was "reckless

If it "really" was "reckless disregard" as Judge Early concludes, then the driver got off way to easy.

Another sad reminder bikes, skate boards, roller skaters do NOT mix well with cars and trucks on U.S. highways despite all the words wasted trying to argue otherwise.

CABoatright
188
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CABoatright 10/19/11 - 07:16 am
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I understand that Mr Johnson
Unpublished

I understand that Mr Johnson & his family are forever affected by this incident, my heart hurts for both families...however; I don't feel 90 days is fair and just for a mans life.

Cassandra Harris
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Cassandra Harris 10/19/11 - 08:32 am
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I don't think the man

I don't think the man intended to kill anyone, but I do think he intended to intimidate them. He kept changing his story. He claimed the sun was in his eyes when the sun was behind him. 90 days is not enough. Now the message has been sent to the community at large that it is open season on bicyclists with a slap on the wrist. So sad for the family and friends of Dr. Burke.

As for cyclists sharing the road, I've lived and traveled all over the US, Canada and Europe and this phenomenon of running over cyclists seems to be an epidemic only in the CSRA. The sentencing in this case explains why.

stillamazed
1488
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stillamazed 10/19/11 - 11:06 am
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I totally disagree Cassandra,

I totally disagree Cassandra, you are making an assumption that he tried in intimidate someone. He said the sun was in his eyes so it is possible that when he reached for his sunglasses some papers fell from the dash. I think when a life changing tragedy has just happened that you are not likely to be having clear thoughts. And this problem is not only in the CSRA, my dad lives in Gainesville, FL and cyclist, car accidents are very common there. When I lived in Germany I saw a car hit a bike, it happens all over. I feel so sorry for Dr. Burke's family and I hope that eventually they can heal, but I think the sentence was correct and I don't believe this man was some kind of monster.

accomment
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accomment 10/19/11 - 11:06 am
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This is a sad situation. I

This is a sad situation. I love to ride my bicycle and I hate when I hear when a cyclist has been struck. I totally disagree with you, Cassandra Harris, because cyclists are struck all over the country each and every day. The more popular cycling becomes, the more it will happen. It's just a fact. As much as I enjoy riding, I do not enjoy getting behind a cyclist on some of our busy or narrow roads. Prayers for healing to all involved.

Cassandra Harris
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Cassandra Harris 10/19/11 - 11:25 am
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still amazed and accomment -

still amazed and accomment - I made my observation that I did not believe it was intentional but that it was most likely road rage by reading the article provided and not just the headline and following the story from the beginning. Here is what Kyle Martin, the AC reporter, wrote:

"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."

So, you have a man who claims the sun was in his eyes when it has been determined that the sun absolutely could NOT have been in his eyes, reaching for sunglasses he did NOT need, who runs into cyclists on a STRAIGHT stretch of road, who were HIGHLY VISIBLE with lights and bright clothing and all of this was verified by officer reenactment. I stand by my earlier statement.

Not only have I lived and travelled elsewhere, I have friends and family who still live all over. Visitors I speak to that come to this city are dumbfounded by the lack of access for cyclists, and overt hostility towards them. Not my imagination that the CSRA has a special problem in this area. One only read the many openly hostile posts that have been made in the past in the AC comments to see that while not a majority, there is a LOUD and often violent animosity against bicyclists. Dr. Burke's live being only worth 90 days of weekend only incarceration and this extraordinarily lenient sentence signals open season on those who ride their bikes.

athome
92
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athome 10/19/11 - 02:09 pm
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Cassandra- you must realize

Cassandra- you must realize that your quotes of the prosecutor and the AC represent their own interests: to win a case and to sell papers respectively. The fact that all involved recommended and accepted the sentence shows clearly that not one of them thought it was an intentional act. the AJ reported several other cyclists deaths in the months since this one. Yet no other has been front page news. It's time to take this one off the front page and let both families deal with it privately.

Cassandra Harris
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Cassandra Harris 10/19/11 - 02:30 pm
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athome - If you reread my

athome - If you reread my posts I made it clear that I did not think that Mr. Johnson intended to hit or hurt anyone. I do think that he suffered an episode of road rage. There is NO doubt that he acted recklessly and that his reckless actions resulted in the injury of several people and the death of Dr. Burke. Mr. Johnson pled guilty in order to avoid this week's trial and possibility of being convicted of a greater charge.

Any way you slice it, a slap on the wrist sentence of 90 days served on weekends alone sends a dangerous message. While the article states that the judge heard an hour of tearful pleas from both families, no where does it state that Dr. Burke's family agreed to or with the extremely lenient sentence.

FLgirl
24
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FLgirl 10/19/11 - 04:12 pm
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The comments I see here

The comments I see here really make me angry. Yes, it's a real shame that this man was killed, (and I have to wonder if it would have been so heavily reported if he weren't a Dr), and I do try to be very careful when I see them, but the thing that bothers me the most is that I DON'T always see them, and they ride at 6:30 in the evening, when visibility is at the absolute worst on the roads. Everyone tries to turn the driver of the car into a criminal every time this happens, but the fact is, these cyclists are taking their life into their own hands EVERY time they go out on these roads, and I have a hard time feeling sorry for them...so sue me.

athome
92
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athome 10/19/11 - 05:45 pm
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FLgirl- I totally

FLgirl- I totally agree!

Cassandra- a plea bargain IS an agreement made by BOTH sides of a case to avoid a full blown trial. The following passage is copied directly from the family statement made by the doctor's brother:

"Today is not about atonement or absolution. It is a day of accountability."

"It is also a day that seemed long in coming. Our family wishes to acknowledge the efforts of South Carolina attorney Peter Wilborn for his efforts over the last year to help bring justice to this case. We also thank Second Circuit Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr. and his team for fairly prosecuting this case to achieve a measure of justice. We respectfully ask this Court to accept the sentence recommended by Mr. Thurmond's office."

And that is what the judge did.

bjphysics
36
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bjphysics 10/19/11 - 05:55 pm
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90 days? For killing a life

90 days? For killing a life saver? Whatever. Strange Justice.

Cassandra Harris
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Cassandra Harris 10/19/11 - 06:23 pm
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Strange Justice indeed bj,

Strange Justice indeed bj, Strange Justice indeed. And from the sound of it, the next case may be shortly coming. Road rage against cyclists in the AUG is a disease that definitely needs to find a cure.

beechislandgirl
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beechislandgirl 10/20/11 - 12:57 pm
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I dont feel this justice was

I dont feel this justice was strange at all, I happen to know Mr. Johnson and he has always been the one to help others or "save lives". He has been a paramedic for years, and has always worked with the emergency response system. I feel very sad for the Burke family , however, I lost a 16 year old brother and his best friend in a tragic"accident" and may I add "accident" and our family never brought things up to the driver that killed them. Things do happen in life for reasons that we may never know, but we have to have faith and trust. There has to come a time for forgiveness, even though it is the hardest thing one will ever do. We should never put a question mark behind God's period. Prayers go out to both families during this time.

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