A Philadelphia, Miss., man has been sentenced to 90 years in jail for driving while drunk and killing five of his six children. Duane John Sr. was charged with six counts of DUI manslaughter after crashing his vehicle into a creek on Dec. 29, 2012.
John’s attorney, P. Shawn Harris, said John was not offered a plea bargain and had no choice but to go to trial. Harris said after a day and a half of testimony and closing arguments, it took the jury just 45 minutes to return a guilty verdict.
John was sentenced to 90 years –15 years per count to run consecutively — with 15 years suspended.
Around 12:30 a.m., on Dec. 29, 2012, John was driving a Dodge Durango SUV on County Road 107 just inside Neshoba County when he left the roadway and plunged into Sipsey Creek.
Sheriff Tommy Waddell said a passing motorist saw the accident and called 911. When authorities arrived, the vehicle was completely submerged in the swollen water. Waddell estimated the creek was more than 10 feet deep due to recent rains.
“It took some time for divers to find them,” Waddell said. “We had an idea of where the car was located just because you could see the air pockets from time to time coming from the vehicle. But it was cold that night, like low 20s to upper teens. And we worked all through the night to find them.”
In the vehicle were John; his wife, 28-year-old Deanna Jim; their friends Dale Chickaway, 37; his wife, Diane Chickaway, 37; and John and Jim’s children, 9-year-old Daisyanna John; Duane John, 8; Bobby John, 7; Quinton John, 4; and Kekaimeas John, 18 months.
John, Jim and Dale Chickaway were able to escape the vehicle.
When a wrecker service finally pulled the car from the water, the bodies of Diane Chickaway and all five children were still inside. They were pronounced dead at the scene by the Neshboa County Deputy Coroner Marshall Prince.
Jim and Dale Chickaway were not injured, while John was treated for hypothermia.
A sixth child was not in the vehicle at the time of the accident.
Waddell said none of the passengers were wearing seatbelts and John’s blood alcohol level was .18, more than twice the legal limit within the State of Mississippi.
John was arrested two days later and his initial bond was set at $150,000. He has remained in custody since then. Waddell said he will be transported to a state facility within the next 30 days.
Harris said John testified at trial, as did his wife, and showed deep remorse about his decision to drink and drive that night.
“He talked about how crushed he was,” Harris said. “It was obvious he was very remorseful.”
All nine passengers were members of the Choctaw Tribe and lived on an Indian Reservation in the Pearl River Community. Authorities said they were going to the Conhetta Community, another reservation in Newton County, at the time of the accident.
The Choctaw Tribe has their own tribal police department that handles criminal matters on the reservation. But because the accident occurred in the county, John was tried in Neshoba County Circuit Court.
“He was extremely emotional during his testimony,” Harris said of John. “He cried during his own testimony. He cried during the testimony of other witnesses as well. So he has been extremely upset by this. It was a very emotional matter. As I told the jury during closing arguments, I have never dealt with a case involving this many deaths. I can’t imagine this happens very often other than like a school shooting where so many children died at one time. It’s very unusual.”
Harris said the jury was made up of African-Americans and Caucasians, men and women. “It was a good mix and not a situation where I could say that it was a lot more of one race or the other,” he said.
John plans to appeal the conviction.
When asked by theGrio if 90 years was the “normal” sentencing in a case of this magnitude. Harris said nothing about this case was normal.
“I don’t know if there is a sense of normality in this particular situation,” he said. “It is an absolute tragedy. Those were his children that were killed in that car along with an adult friend. I don’t know what normal would be in this case.”