KCBD Investigates: Jury accidentally gives probation instead of prison sentence

KCBD Investigates: Jury accidentally gives probation instead of prison sentence
Nicolas Mata, Junior
Nicolas Mata, Junior
Nicholas Mata, Junior Hospital Photo
Nicholas Mata, Junior Hospital Photo

LYNN COUNTY, TX (KCBD) - The Lynn County District Attorney is appealing the sentence of a drunk driver who was involved in a crash where a child lost his leg.

In August, the jury found 48-year-old Sammy Carl Williams guilty of two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, one count of intoxicated assault and two counts of failure to stop and render aid.

The jury wanted Williams to go to prison for a decade, but they unintentionally gave him probation instead.

"When the judge started reading the sentencing, all 12, we all kind of started looking at each other and thinking wait, wait, I don't think this is what we meant."

Jenni McLelland was the foreman of the jury charged with sentencing Williams.

"I called the bailiff to come over and said this is a mistake, but it was too late, it was done," McLelland said.

The jury found Williams guilty of driving drunk, crashing into a Colorado family's Tahoe, and leaving the scene, but they only sentenced him to probation.

"We were very upset and we felt very, very bad," McLelland said.

Back in June of 2013, Williams was driving to his Tahoka home from Lubbock, when he crashed into the Tahoe along Highway 87, severely injuring Nicolas Mata Junior.

"Junior was in the middle of the road like road kill," said Gloria Hernandez, Junior's mother.

Junior's mother was at home in Colorado when she got the call.

"I told him I loved him and that he was going to be okay and just to stay awake until the helicopter gets there," Hernandez said.

Junior lived, but the crash took his leg.

"They tried to save his leg. He was missing some bone; it had flown out of his body," Hernandez said.

Junior's life was changed forever.

"He wanted to be a police officer or a soldier; he just thinks they are the most awesome people in the world. He knows now he can't be a soldier now," Hernandez said.

These are the thoughts that linger with the jury.

"This sweet family had borrowed money to travel to Tahoka for this trial and we just let him off," McLelland said.

"Two of the jury members got very upset and cried because we did not intend for him to just go free and that's essentially what happened," McLelland said.

KCBD obtained sworn statements from every member of the jury.

After the sentencing, one juror wrote, "I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to vomit. Another wrote, "It will be on my conscience. "I feel this should be a mistrial," another juror wrote.

"We don't know how all 12 of us misunderstood the exact same way," McLelland said.

The source of the confusion? The verdict form. The jury thought they were sentencing Williams to 10 years in prison and they recommended probation thinking he would receive both, but what they really did is probate that sentence.

"It needs to be made more clear that if you assign this then you can't assign this," McLelland said.

Even after the judge knew the jury was confused, there was no change in the sentence.

"Knowing that we didn't understand what was happening and it was allowed to just continue and allowed to be incorrect," McLelland said.

The prosecutor is appealing the judge's ruling. Now, the decision rests with the Seventh Court of Appeals.

"I want him to go to prison. I don't want him to hurt anyone else," Hernandez said.

Williams has been convicted of a DWI once before. Lynn County District Attorney Michael Munk, who prosecuted this case, said Williams attended court mandated treatment because of that conviction.

Munk said it could be months before the Seventh Court of Appeals issues a ruling.

It is unusual for the state to appeal a sentence. Munk said the state has very limited ability to appeal a case when jeopardy is attached.

That being said, he has filed not only an appeal, but a writ addressing pre-trial issues. Munk said the state is exhausting every appellate procedure.

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