One down, one to go.
When Superior Court Judge Duncan Wheale last week lowered the boom on 21-year-old Tiara Maria Smith of Augusta, he sent what should be considered a very strong warning for her still-to-be-tried cohort in a deadly 2006 crash.
Smith pled guilty to two counts of murder and two counts of feticide, along with two counts of serious injury by vehicle and fleeing and attempting to elude police. Wheale handed down three concurrent life sentences for the murder and feticide charges, and tacked on 10 more years for the other charges.
Smith was the getaway driver for a shoplifting spree at the Marshall's store in Mullin's Crossing last June. She was behind the wheel of the Ford SUV that ran a stop light on Washington Road at Bobby Jones Expressway, slamming into a sedan and killing 63-year-old Margaret Patricia Branton and her son, 37-year-old Lonnie Turner, both of Martinez.
Turner's pregnant wife, Mary, was injured, and lost the baby she was carrying. Their 4-year-old son received only minor injuries, as did Smith and a child in her vehicle.
While it might sound ludicrous to hand down three "life" sentences to one person, Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board guidelines mean Smith could be released in as few as 14 years. What's more, there was another person in her car that day - and her case is a frightening example of just how little time some criminals actually serve.
Nebula McNeely was that passenger. She is a career criminal, and is scheduled to go to court in a couple of weeks. As part of her plea agreement, Smith is expected to testify against McNeely.
One thing that will be obvious in court: If McNeely had been kept in jail last time, she couldn't have been there at all in June.
The Georgia Department of Corrections listing for McNeely is a jaw-dropper. She has been sent to prison eight times in the past 21 years. Her sentences - for shoplifting, simple assault, impersonation (Corrections lists 19 aliases for McNeely) and obstruction of a police officer - have totalled 26 years. She has spent barely a third of that time behind bars.
Worse? She got out of prison in May 2006 after serving just two years of an eight-year sentence for shoplifting - one month before the spree that killed three members of a Martinez family.
Overcrowded prisons often release "non-violent" offenders like McNeely to make room for violent criminals. With McNeely, that policy has allowed a career criminal to continue terrorizing the public while committing repeated property crimes that had little or no human cost.
Until now - and the cost is steep. So should be the punishment that awaits McNeely if she's found guilty. She has made it clear she will not follow the rules required for residing in a free society, and should forever forfeit that right.
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