Even the prosecutor admitted respected journalist, writer and humanitarian Donovan Webster, 56, “presents as a good and decent man who made a horrible, horrible choice.” Then he asked for a sentence in years, not months, for the drunk driving crash that killed Waynesboro patriarch Wayne Thomas White Sr., 75, last August.
More than 20 of White’s family members sat in Albemarle Circuit Court June 24, and six of them testified before sentencing. “I am angry and sad at the same time,” said son Eddie White. “He didn’t have to die. He was killed.”
White’s grandson, Rodney White, said, “Now that I’m 17, I know that every choice has a consequence. On August 14, 2014, our family’s life was changed forever from a temporary choice with permanent consequences. My grandfather didn’t have a choice.”
Webster, former senior editor of Outside magazine, frequent contributor to the New Yorker and National Geographic, Virginia Quarterly Review interim editor and UVA lecturer, faced up to 10 years for involuntary manslaughter while driving under the influence. He pleaded guilty in February, and at the sentencing, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Matthew Quatrara noted, “In a case like this, there are no winners. There is only loss, everywhere, on both sides of the aisle.”
According to Albemarle police Sergeant C. M. Stoddard, when he arrived on Rockfish Turnpike Gap on Afton Mountain after the 6:27pm crash, he found debris everywhere, Webster’s car in the center of the road, a jack-knifed tractor trailer blocking the westbound lanes and White’s 1990s Chevy Blazer upside down. Webster, he said, had driven to Waynesboro to buy fishing gear and came home on the scenic U.S. 250 route. White and the tractor trailer were going west up the mountain, the truck at around 45mph.
The driver of the semi “could not tell us what caused the crash,” said Stoddard. The black box data from Webster’s late model car said he was driving at 66mph in a 55mph zone five seconds before the crash, said Stoddard, and 1.5 seconds before impact, the car slowed to 65mph.
Webster failed two field sobriety tests, passed two mental acuity tests and blew a .13 blood alcohol content in the roadside breath test, said Stoddard. Six hours later, Webster’s blood was drawn and tested at .10. The legal limit is .08.
Probation officer Steve Morsch testified that Webster had been in an in-patient program in August 2013 and was at the Betty Ford Clinic in February 2014. “He’d indicated his use of alcohol had gone from problematic to full-blown addiction,” he said.
Dr. James Webster testified that in the past three to five years, his son had been on “a downward spiral of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder” stemming from being in Iraq, the tsunami in Indonesia and the death of his mother. “He became unrecognizable from the person we knew and loved,” said Dr. Webster, and family and friends held a “vigorous intervention.”
Webster, handcuffed, shackled and wearing a dark blue prison uniform, said on the witness stand, “I can’t stress how sorry I am. I can only ask, can only hope someday they can see my contrition.”
Both Quatrara and Judge Paul Peatross seemed dubious, both citing Webster’s two previous attempts at sobriety. Despite what Quatrara called Webster’s unvarnished sense of responsibility and remorse, he asked that Webster be sentenced as a deterrent on the high end of the sentencing guidelines, which called for between 10 months and two years, 10 months in jail.
Peatross, who sat on the Albemarle bench for 17 years, described other fatal drunk driving cases he’d presided over, and said one was the reason he retired in 2009. “These cases take the breath out of me,” he said before sentencing Webster to 10 years in prison with eight suspended, two years supervised probation, no alcohol and no driving.