URBANA — A Mahomet man whose drunken driving caused the death of his longtime friend over a year ago was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison.
Judge Brett Olmstead on Friday said Chad Smith, 28, was more difficult than most to deter because he has failed to accept that he has a problem with alcohol.
On July 31, a jury convicted Smith of aggravated driving under the influence for driving drunk and getting into a crash about 2:30 a.m. July 14, 2018, north of Mahomet that resulted in the death of his passenger and lifelong friend, Michael Donahue, 32, of Mahomet.
Mr. Donahue was thrown from Smith’s car, which then landed on top of him in a bean field near county roads 2500 N and 350 E.
Smith, who rejected a plea agreement for eight years in prison, will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence, or just under eight years. The maximum he faced was 14 years behind bars.
Testimony at trial revealed that the friends had been drinking earlier at the Fisher Fair and were headed home after having dropped off a female friend.
After the crash, Smith made his way to a nearby home, where he banged on the door and told the woman who lived there that he had been in a wreck and that his arm hurt. First responders noted that Smith was clearly intoxicated and smelled of alcohol. When they asked if there was anyone else they needed to worry about, he replied no.
On Friday, Olmstead said he didn’t believe that Smith was blatantly lying to police but instead was simply drunk.
The judge noted that at the time of the fatal crash, Smith was on probation for misdemeanor driving under the influence in connection with an April 2016 crash near Hugo in Douglas County in which a power pole was damaged and power lines were downed. Unlike the July 2018 crash, Smith was not seriously injured in 2016.
“His persistent denial of his problem is interfering with his life,” Olmstead said, adding that the denial cost Mr. Donahue his life.
Although he was ordered not to drink or use any drugs while on probation, Smith admitted to a probation officer in August — after his recent conviction — that he smoked cannabis and continued to drink.
To aggravate the sentence, Assistant State’s Attorney Will Lynch called Mahomet police Officer Tom Favot to testify about encounters with Smith on Aug. 21 and 24. Favot said Smith, who was walking both times, appeared to be intoxicated and smelled of alcohol.
Olmstead said it was clear that Smith lied to the alcohol evaluator about how much he had drunk the night of the fatal crash, telling that person he had three light beers and a margarita.
“There is no way. The estimate the evaluator put on it was 10 to 12 standard drinks. What that night was was a bender for Mr. Smith. Ten to 12 sounds right,” said the judge.
Lynch sought a sentence of 12 years in prison for Smith.
“This is the exact situation we in society fear as a result of drinking and driving,” the prosecutor said.
Besides the 2016 DUI conviction, Lynch noted that Smith had other “run-ins with the system” for possession of a controlled substance in 2009 and reckless driving in 2010. He argued that because Smith completed alcohol education and treatment following his 2016 conviction, he should have known the dangers of repeating the same behavior.
Smith’s attorney, Jim Martinkus of Champaign, argued that Smith’s record was “not the most egregious” and that he had never been to prison. He said Smith’s daughter would be affected by his imprisonment and urged the judge to impose a sentence closer to the minimum of three years.
Smith declined to say anything to Olmstead when given the chance.
The judge conceded that the Legislature had put a broad range on the potential sentence because some DUI cases are worse than others.
But he said Smith had taken his 2016 opportunity at probation and “flushed it down the toilet and went on with this misapprehension that alcohol was playing no role in his life."
“The 2016 conviction wasn’t meant as a hassle. It was meant to be a wake-up call, to learn something ... an opportunity to make changes. It’s not everybody that gets that opportunity. His drinking and driving killed a lifetime friend of his,” he said, adding that Mr. Donahue’s death created a “gaping hole” in the lives of his own family and for Smith, who had known him since childhood.
Smith was also ordered to pay $3,376 in fines, fees and costs.
After his arrest for aggravated DUI in Champaign County, the Douglas County state’s attorney filed a petition to revoke the probation he received there in 2016. That case remains unresolved and is set for a status hearing Nov. 5 in Tuscola.