Norman and Toni Smith draped one protective arm each around their 12-year-old son as all three listened to Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons sentence a Sampson County woman to active prison time for the role she played in injuring the mother and son during an October 2013 accident.
Emotions were etched across their faces as the sentence was handed down, the last leg, the couple said, in a long, arduous journey that began when Lesley Allison Thornton ran a stop sign on Kitty Fork Road and was T-boned by Toni Smith’s 1999 BMW, which was traveling southbound on U.S. 421.
Thornton, court records show, was high on cocaine at the time of the accident.
She entered a guilty plea Monday in Sampson Superior Court to 1 count felony hit and run involving serious injury, 2 counts injury by vehicle, 1 count assault with a deadly weapon on a government official and 1 count speeding to elude arrest.
Parsons sentenced her to no less than 10 months and no more than 21 months of active prison time in the N.C. Department of Corrections, with credit for the 172 days she has spent in the Sampson Detention Center awaiting trial. She was additionally given two 16-29 month sentences ordered to run at the expiration of the active sentence, both of which were suspended, with Thornton placed on probation for 36 months once released from prison.
She is also required to pay just over $16,500 in restitution to the Smiths, money that will go toward medical bills not covered by the couple’s insurance. A total $15,000 of that restitution was ordered to be paid Tuesday with the balance to be provided in the first six months of her probationary period.
Clad in a pink jail jumpsuit, Thornton stood to face Parsons during the sentencing, offering an apology for the pain she had caused.
“I’m sorry. I won’t ever do that again … I’ve learned my lesson and I’m ready to get the help I need.”
A stern Parsons said he hoped she had learned a lesson and pointed to her plea arrangement as an opportunity to turn her life around and make wise choices.
“You are being given an opportunity to make something of your life. It will mean leaving the drugs alone. If you choose not to, things will be difficult,” the judge warned.
And he drove home the point in his order, requiring the 28-year-old to undergo mandatory drug testing, to meet with her probation officer within 72 hours of her release, to be gainfully employed six hours a day within 45 days of her release (or carrying out community service if a job cannot be found) and myriad other requirements, many which follow probationary guidelines.
“If you test positive for any illegal controlled substance, you’ll be arrested and placed under a $100,000 bond; if you skip one appointment with your probation officer, you are looking at another active sentence …. if you operate a motor vehicle before being properly licensed to do so, with insurance, you are looking at the same thing — you will be arrested and you will be placed under a $100,000 bond,” Parsons stressed.
Pointing to the hardship Thornton’s choices had caused a “good, outstanding family,” Parsons said: “I hope you realize the emotional turmoil you have caused some very nice people, not to mention the physical pain Mrs. Smith has had to endure.”
Toni Smith suffered serious injuries in the Oct. 4, 2013 accident, including a broken left hand, two broken feet and separated ribs, among countless other breaks. Probably more intensive, her husband said, was the emotional scars, including constant nightmares, associated with the accident.
“It’s been a very difficult time,” Toni Smith said Monday. “I can fight through the physical pain, but the memory will never leave me. My sentence is lifelong. She can get out and live a normal life, and I hope she does, but I just want her to know that her sentence is much easier than mine.”
Though not as seriously injured, the Smiths’ 12-year-old, his father said, had emotional scars as well. Though they are now slowly but surely fading away, nearly a year after the wreck, those scars, too, had made an impact on the young boy’s life, particularly his academics. Once an academically gifted student, Norman Smith said, his son’s grades had slipped some after the accident.
“He’s getting there, and he will be an AG student again, but this (the accident) has taken a toll.”
Despite the emotional, physical and financial hardships the wreck caused for the Smith family, they do not harbor hard feelings toward Thornton.
In court Monday, Norman Smith spoke on behalf of his family who sat huddled together behind him. “First of all, I would like to thank God for sparing the lives of all three individuals involved in that wreck. It’s been a long struggle since that time, a great burden for my family, but I am thankful it wasn’t any worse than it has been.”
Smith, who at first believed the wreck to be a fiery crash, said it was painful to watch his wife struggle the way she has since the accident, and to see the changes it brought to his energetic son.
“But I hold no animosity for something that is out of my control,” he stressed. “I don’t hold a grudge and neither does my family. We want her to be OK.”
Smith did say he was shocked and upset that neither Thornton nor any member of her family had reached out to them after the accident, “even to check to see how they were doing.”
Shaking his head, Norman Smith added, “We just weren’t raised that way.”
He also said that Thornton was clearly a danger to herself and to others and that he hoped she would get herself straightened out and not get back on the road until she had done so. “I certainly hope she gets the help she needs and that there is never a repeat occurrence like what happened to my family.”
Shaking his head, Parsons said, “I intend to do everything legally in my power to make sure that is the case.”
In relaying the facts of the case during court Monday, assistant District Attorney Robbie Thigpen painted a picture of Lesley Thornton standing outside her wrecked Honda Civic the night of Oct. 4, trying to break free from an EMS worker attempting to check her injuries.
Thornton left the scene of the accident before law enforcement arrived, but not before climbing across her wrecked vehicle to first search for her pocketbook and a second time to retrieve her cigarettes.
At one point, Thigpen said, she was spotted climbing onto the hood of the Civic before sliding to the other side, climbing an embankment and fleeing into a wooded area.
A day later, on Oct. 5, she went to Sampson Regional Medical Center seeking treatment for injuries she couldn’t explain.
Thigpen said while at SRMC, Thornton was diagnosed with cocaine abuse.
Thornton told authorities, Thigpen said, that she woke up in the woods, noticed the lacerations and bruises and sought help. “She had no memory of what happened from Oct. 4 until the morning of Oct. 5,” the assistant district attorney said.
Eventually Thornton was charged in connection with the accident, but that was not her last run-in with law enforcement officers.
A few months later, on Feb. 9, she led Highway Patrol troopers on a high-speed chase in Sampson County, reaching speeds, Thigpen said, of 100 mph.
When she was finally stopped, Thornton refused to allow officers to take her into custody. She was eventually tased.
In that incident, court records show, Thornton admitted to having used marijuana before getting behind the wheel of the vehicle. She further told troopers, Thigpen said, that she’d been “having a bad day,” rattling off a series of personal problems that had caused her actions.
On Monday, Thornton listened to the account of her behavior, sitting quietly beside her attorney David Hobson.
Other than offering an apology to the Smith family and acknowledging her intent to plead to the charges, she offered no other comment.
(Editor Sherry Matthews can be reached at 910-249-4612. Follow her on Twitter @sieditor1960; follow the paper @SampsonInd.)