Cases against two people accused of killing another with their cars inched closer to resolution Tuesday during a busy morning session in Circuit Judge Howard Maltz’s St. Johns County courtroom.
Maltz, that same morning, also sentenced a 32-year-old man to eight years in prison for selling heroin and the powerful opioid fentanyl — the first such sentencing since the judge announced last year that he would no longer be taking plea deals in cases against people accused of selling the drugs.
Among the first up of the morning’s defendants was Courtney Michelle Stack, who pleaded no contest to a single count of vehicular homicide for the July 2015 crash on U.S. 1 at Lewis Speedway that killed 54-year-old Henry A. Smith, a pedestrian.
Stack, 24, of Jacksonville, was arrested in 2016 on charges of DUI, DUI causing the death of a human, and possession of paraphernalia following an investigation that revealed she struck Smith with her Honda Civic after driving more than 9 feet over the western edge of the southbound lane.
Bloodwork revealed she had cocaine and methadone in her system, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said at the time of her arrest.
Per the terms of her plea agreement Tuesday, Smith will spend two years in prison followed by 10 years of drug offender probation and will be required to serve 100 hours of community service in a trauma center or “equivalent health care facility.” Her driver’s license will be suspended for 10 years.
Maltz will formally sentence her on Feb. 14.
Nearly a month after that, he will also be sentencing Jay Allyn Alix who pleaded no contest Tuesday to leaving the scene of a January 2015 crash on U.S. 1 that killed 45-year-old Benjamin Robert Kausch.
Florida Highway Patrol arrested Alix, 47, of Green Cove Springs in November 2016 for leaving the scene of a crash involving death and perjury in an official proceeding. The 7th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office never filed the perjury charge.
Highway Patrol’s investigation of the crash found that Alix was driving his Cadillac Escalade on U.S. 1 just north of Ronald Road on the night of Jan. 16, 2015, when he veered onto the paved apron and struck Kausch who was riding his bicycle.
According to his plea agreement, Alix will serve four years in prison after which we will be on probation for five years and have his driver’s license suspended for 10.
Sentencing is scheduled for March 12.
The final case of the morning saw Maltz sentence 32-year-old Jesse Jacob Bolton to two, eight-year sentences — to be served concurrently — after the 32-year-old St. Augustine man pleaded no contest to one count each of selling heroin and selling fentanyl.
The pleas in the case were the first to come after Maltz, in November, announced that, as a general rule because of the ongoing opioid crisis that is claiming lives throughout the state and across the country, he would not accept plea agreements in cases against defendants accused of selling the drugs.
In a memo released at the time of his decision, Maltz explained that the rule applies only to those accused of selling or manufacturing the deadly drugs and said that he could make certain allowances for defendants who have worked with law enforcement in their cases.
The decision means defendants can decide to either take their cases to trial or enter an open plea before the court where prosecutors and defense attorneys can argue aggravating and mitigating factors prior to sentencing, something that Maltz said will shine more light on the process.
“While the executive and legislative branches of our government have taken significant steps to address this crisis,” the memo said, “it is imperative the judicial branch also take certain steps to assure public confidence in addressing this crisis.”
Arguing mitigating factors is what Bolton, through his attorney Laurie James Arnold IV, opted for Tuesday.
At least three family members and a friend testified that Bolton was selling the drugs to support his own habit and that he had been a law-abiding “good” person before he got addicted to drugs and suffered from a stroke.
Assistant State Attorney Mitch Bishop argued that Bolton had not been “strung out” or high when he sold the drugs to a St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office confidential informant and was doing so willingly for profit.
Bishop said he thought between 4 to 8 years would be an appropriate sentence in the case, given Bolton’s criminal history of lesser offenses that included theft and burglary charges.
Arnold asked for the low end of that range suggesting that Bolton was not a “big fish” in the drug supply chain and not a good candidate if Maltz was looking to “make an example” out of defendants selling the drugs. He also pointed out that the pleas in the case avoided a trial which could have potentially exposed the identity of the confidential informant.
Before imposing the sentence, Maltz said he did not consider Bolton’s drug use a mitigating factor and that he “could not think of a deadlier combination” than that of heroin and fentanyl.
“I should give him 30 years,” Maltz said. “I am not going to.”
“The reason I am not going to give him 30 years is because he came in here, admitted what he did wrong, spared everybody the time and expense of a trial and more significantly spared the disclosure of a confidential informant.”