Justice Delayed: Family injured by drunk driver waits years for prosecution

MANDEVILLE, LA (WVUE) - Imagine if a vehicle carrying your wife and children was hit by an alleged drunk driver, and he somehow got a slap on the wrist. That's the dilemma facing members of a Mandeville family, who are still waiting for the driver to be tried for drunk driving more than two years later.

"When I saw him coming as fast as he was, I realized he was going to hit us if we didn't move." said Mandeville teacher Dara Johnson.

On a clear, sunny afternoon in April 2012, Johnson and her two children were heading north on the Causeway when Lawrence Getz smashed his Ford Escape into Johnson's SUV.

"It was a huge jolt. I didn't know if I still had tires on the bottom of the car," Johnson said.

Getz's SUV spun out, flipped, and came to a stop facing the wrong direction.

"We were listening to music, and then I wake up and realize we'd been hit by someone," said Dara's daughter, Sadie.

The accident knocked Getz unconscious.

"My vehicle kept going, and was shaking, and when my eyes opened, my truck stopped," said Dara Johnson.

The Johnson's ended up at Lakeview Hospital on the north shore, while EMS rushed Getz to Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans.

Doctors treated Getz, drew blood and measured his blood alcohol content at .21, according to State Police documents. That's two-and-a-half times over the legal limit.

The Johnson family all required extensive treatment and physical therapy.

"After a couple of days of headaches and blurred vision, we all realized we had major concussions. I have two bulging discs in my neck. Sadie and I are going through cognitive issues - Casey too. We're being tested, and Casey's had seizures," said Dara.

But Getz was never charged with DUI. Instead, he was ticketed for careless operation and driving with an expired license. Two months after the accident and four days before the trial, Getz pleaded guilty and paid a fine of $409. Dara Johnson and her family say they were caught off guard by the plea.

"I felt I was let down by St. Tammany Parish and my attorneys at the time, because I thought it was their responsibility to let me know what was happening," said Dara.

The Johnson family said their attorney never caught the fact a blood alcohol test, or BAC, showing the .21 level was on file at State Police headquarters in Baton Rouge, even though the test was noted at the bottom of the ticket.

"My husband got a copy of the ticket. We were never told that by our first attorneys who represented us," said Dara.

After Getz pleaded guilty, Dara Johnson said a top assistant in the St. Tammany DA's office told her that the BAC test slipped through the cracks. Dara's husband pressed the office, and weeks later they say the same assistant DA told the Johnsons that the BAC results were mailed to the wrong address.

"Oh yeah - something is going on with this case for sure," said Dara. "The way we've been approached, you can tell."

In January 2013, nearly eight months after the accident, the Johnsons fired their attorney, an associate of the law firm McCrainie Sistrunk. They say the attorney who was hired to handle the civil case failed to follow up on getting results of the blood alcohol test, which was noted on the original citation. The Johnsons believe had he done so, it would have changed the outcome of both the criminal and the civil cases.

The Johnsons then asked the DA's office to put the matter before a grand jury.

On April 25 of 2014, nearly two years after the accident, a grand jury indicted Getz on three counts of first-degree negligent injury.

"Yes, vehicular negligent injury means you hurt someone while driving while drunk, and that's the correct charge to that," said FOX 8 legal analyst Joseph Raspanti.

After the indictment, the Johnsons said they began to notice a mounting number of potential conflicts of interest with their case. McCrainie Sistrunk, the firm of the Johnsons' first attorney, also did work for the Causeway Commission. The Johnsons believed the Causeway Police could have done more to ensure the blood alcohol test results were attached to the initial citation.

"David had to go to the courthouse to get a copy of that, and that's when we found out there was a test that was taken. We had to pursue everything ourselves," said Dara Johnson.

Then the Johnsons found out that St. Tammany DA Walter Reed was "of counsel" to McCrainie Sistrunk. They wrote a letter in August 2014 asking him to recuse himself from the case. In that letter, they mention the conflict of working for McCrainie Sistrunk and that "the Johnson family has substantial doubt as to you or your office's capacity to remain impartial."

Reed recused himself from the case.

Raspanti says law firms are supposed to alert clients of any potential conflicts of interest before taking on a case.

"I think it's pretty clear in the code of ethics, if you have a possible conflict, you need to let all your clients know of your representation, so that everyone knows it and understands it and everybody's comfortable with it, and everybody waives the conflict," said Raspanti.

And the Johnson's questions didn't stop there. In the letter seeking Reed's recusal they claimed the firm McCrainie Sistrunk provides legal services to USAA Insurance, who is also the insurance provider for Getz.

Mccrainie Sistrunk has not commented on this allegation.

"If you want to be an attorney in this situation, you should always err on the side of getting out of the case, because you can get yourself in a real mess with the conflicts," said Raspanti.

The St. Tammany DA's office wouldn't comment directly to FOX 8 on the DUI slipping through the cracks or on the conflict allegations. Spokesman Rick Wood issued a statement saying, "This is a pending case on the docket of the 22nd Judicial Court. The district attorney's office has recused itself from the prosecution of the case, and referred the matter to the attorney general."

But in an earlier correspondence with the Johnson family, Assistant District Attorney Ronald Gracianette said, "There has been no correspondence or contact between the St. Tammany DA's Office, and the law firm of McCrainie Sistrunk … other than to discuss the herein public records request and pursuit of criminal charges against Lawrence Getz."

The case is now being prosecuted by the state attorney general. But there's a new delay. A Dec. 5 trial date has been pushed back, as Getz's lawyers seek Johnson family medical records.

"I just hope my family is treated fairly throughout the rest of the case," said Dara Johnson.

A case of justice delayed, which they hope, will end soon.

The Causeway Commission recently terminated its relationship with the McCrainie Sistrunk firm, but Causeway General Manager Carlton Dufrechou said it had nothing to do with the Johnson case.

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