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Johnson gets jail time in distracted driving deaths on Great River Bridge

Court news from Tri States Public Radio.

A Gladstone woman convicted of reckless homicide in the deaths of two construction workers will serve 90 days in the Henderson County jail.

Emily Johnson, 23, was also sentenced to 30 months probation.

In addition, Johnson will be required to give at least ten presentations to schools and organizations on the dangers of distracted driving, once she has completed probation.

Johnson was taken to the Henderson County jail to begin her sentence at the conclusion of a sentencing hearing Thursday.

Johnson was driving west to nursing classes at Southeastern Community College on the morning of Oct. 18, 2022, when she struck and killed Pearson Franklin, 20, of New London and Andrew Whitcomb, 35, of Burnside on the Great River Bridge.

The victims were thrown more than 250 feet into the air.

Johnson was found guilty in March of two counts reckless homicide and two counts aggravated use of a communication device.

Special Prosecutor Brian Towne had asked for a prison sentence in the case, noting Johnson had been on her phone from the moment she left her driveway that morning.

“She was Snapchatting,” Towne said. “Whether she intended to do harm or not, she did it.”

‘So much left to contribute’

Members of the victims’ families delivered impact statements at the hearing.

“On October 18th, 2022, my family was sentenced to life without a son,” said Tom Franklin, father of Pearson Franklin. “All because your phone was more important to you than my son’s life.”

Pearson, a Navy veteran who loved the outdoors, was killed months before he was set to be the best man in his brother’s wedding.

Clayle Franklin said he and his brother dreamt of building homes next to each other and raising their children together. He said he lost his best friend.

“Those things can no longer happen because of a cell phone,” he said.

Mother Julie Franklin said Johnson’s actions showed a blatant disregard for human life and impacted many people’s lives.

“I beg you, judge. Set the bar, so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she said.

Towne read victim impact statements from Whitcomb’s siblings, including his twin sister Ashley Squier, who wears her brother’s ashes in a pendant around her neck and his fingerprint in a ring on her finger.

“Andrew should still be here,” she said.

Squier said her brother had the best laugh and treated his nephews like they were his own.

“He had so much left to contribute to the world,” she said.

Squier also wrote a tribute to her brother at End Distracted Driving.

Praying for forgiveness

Johnson was studying to be a nurse at the time of the crash and has since completed her degree.

Several people delivered statements about her character at the hearing.

Kimberly Hinson, a Southeastern Community College nursing professor, called Johnson compassionate, professional, respectful, and an asset to the nursing community.

Johnson’s best friend, Corrine Booton, said Johnson went to live with her grandparents when her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, so she could take care of her.

Retired teacher Cynthia Seibert said the tragic event of Oct. 18, 2022, “doesn’t define who she is.”

Lonnie Brent, Johnson’s uncle, said Johnson shows remorse for her actions and wants to educate others about the danger of distracted driving.

Then Johnson spoke, dressed in a black suit and heels, saying she prays every day for healing, peace, and forgiveness.

“I wish I could take it back,” she said. “I am sorry from the bottom of my heart.”

Defense attorney Scott McClintock said this was one of the most difficult cases he’s ever worked on.

McClintock argued for a sentence of probation, saying Johnson was unlikely to commit another crime.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.