By Linda Looney-Bond
A former GBI investigator has pleaded guilty to first-degree vehicular homicide, involving a Dec. 2008 automobile crash that killed an elderly Forest Park man.
Kellie Bennett, pleaded guilty, Monday, in Clayton County Superior Court, before Chief Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons, according to District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson.
The crash occurred Dec. 18, 2008, on Ga. Hwy 54/Jonesboro Road, near Astor Avenue, in Forest Park, according to a Georgia State Patrol incident report.
Bennett, who was a GBI investigator at the time of the incident, was driving a state vehicle, according to prosecutors. Robert James, 76, of Forest Park, a passenger in a vehicle that police say Bennett struck, died Jan. 9, as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.
According to Lawson: Following the guilty plea, Monday, under first-offender status, Bennett was sentenced to five years of probation, a $1,000 fine, and required to attend defensive driving school, write a letter of apology to the victim's family, and speak to youths or police academy recruits at 10 speaking engagements.
Lawson said Bennett would likely talk to police recruits about "how to be cautious when using lights and siren, and the potential tragedy when you're not," and would likely talk to youths about safe driving.
"This was a tragedy all the way around for both the victim's family and for the defendant," said Lawson. "I think this was a very fair resolution of the case, and the victim's family forgave the defendant, and was satisfied with the sentence," she said.
According to the GBI report, on the day of the incident, Bennett's "unmarked GBI Unit was traveling ... with emergency lights and audible siren activated." Bennett drove through a red light and struck the vehicle in which James was a passenger, which was driven by his wife, Mary Elizabeth James, according to the police report.
Bennett was headed to a death scene where, apparently, a person had committed suicide, according to her attorney, Lee Sexton. "She felt it was an emergency. She thought it was important that she get there expeditiously," Sexton said, in July.
Bennett worked for the GBI's medical examiner's office, which was the designated coroner for Clayton County, according to GBI Spokesman John Bankhead. Bankhead confirmed that Bennett was fired as a result of the incident. "She was authorized to drive it [ the state vehicle] -- not use the emergency lights," Bankhead said in July. "She had a direct order not to use the emergency lights," he said.
Sexton said his client is remorseful. "She expressed, through me, her great remorse," Sexton said, following the sentencing. "The family [of Robert James] waited in the hallway and told me to express to her [Bennett] that they forgive her, and they understand it was just an accident," said Sexton.
"The sentence was incredibly fair under the circumstances," he said. "She entered a [guilty] plea to vehicular homicide, under Georgia's First Offender Act, which means she does not become a convicted felon as a part of that plea," said Sexton.
"The adjudication of guilt is withheld, as long as she successfully completes probation," he said.
"Kellie's never had any criminal issues in her whole life. She was a highly respected investigator with the GBI, and we don't expect any problems at all," Sexton said. "This was a tragic automobile accident, and there was not criminal conduct by anyone."
However, Sexton maintained that Bennett, and other investigators in her division, were over-worked, and the division was under-staffed. "They were working 20 hours a day," he said.
GBI Spokesman Bankhead confirmed that the agency's medical examiner's office has added more investigators since December of last year.
Meanwhile, Sexton said Bennett has not worked since she left the GBI position.
"She's going to get her life back on track, and help support her family as she has done for years," he said.