Investigators bungled the case of a Marine Lieutenant killed by an allegedly drunk driver. Now her parents are pursuing a civil case
On the night of June 27th, Marine Corps officer First Lieutenant Justice Stewart was struck and killed while jogging along Highway 50 in Pender County. The preliminary investigation indicated the driver of the truck that hit her was impaired. But as the investigation unfolded, critical procedural errors on the part of law enforcement rendered some evidence inadmissible.
As a result of a flawed investigation, the driver that killed Lt. Justice Stewart was allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving. He was sentenced to 120 days in the Pender County Jail.
The victim, Marine Corps First Lieutenant Justice Stewart was one of only 70 black female officers in the Marine Corps. She earned her commission shortly after completing a degree in Political Science at Spelman College, a historically Black college in Atlanta. She commanded about 45 Marines at 2d Marine Division, Headquarters Batallion, Truck Company, a logistics platoon.
The fatal crash
According to court records, the driver, William Keith Genens, spends the day of the accident drinking on his boat. That evening, after a double shot of Wild Turkey and half a beer, he leaves Dale’s Pub and heads home in his 1998 F-150, which is missing its rearview mirror. Distracted by a driver on his tail, he focuses on the outside passenger’s side mirror when he hits and kills Lt. Stewart.
Stewart died at around 9:40 p.m.
Officers who arrive on scene smell alcohol on Genens' breath and report that he had “red-blurry eyes, mush-mouthed” speech, and was unsteady on his feet.”
According to the District Attorney's office, Genens refuses to call 911, despite pleas from other drivers and neighbors at the scene. Instead, he calls his adult children to get help for himself. According to witnesses at the scene, he makes no effort to aid Stewart.
Forty minutes after the accident, the North Carolina State Troopers arrive on scene and the investigating officer asks Genens to submit to a breathalyzer. He does, blowing .09% and .10% — the legal limit for drunk driving in North Carolina is .08%
Shortly thereafter, Genens’ adult children arrive, and according to a law enforcement recording, they discuss stalling for time. During the recorded conversation, Genens is heard saying” I shouldn’t have taken that breath test.” Genens then refuses an on-scene blood test that would have been administered by medics.
At 12:31 a.m., after being transported to the Pender County jail, Genens refuses a second blood test. At 1:10 a.m. a Burgaw police officer administers another breathalyzer test after informing him that he is being charged with an implied consent violation. By this time the test shows a .03%, below the legal limit. Twenty minutes after that, he does consent to a blood test.
But somewhere in the evidence-gathering process, something goes wrong.
Missteps in the investigation will later be referred to by a judge as 'irregularities' but they are serious and threaten to derail the state's case. Prosecutors are forced to choose. Would they rather accept a plea to a lesser charge, or risk not getting a conviction in a jury trial?
According to Sam Dooies, spokesperson for the DA’s office, it was “complications” relating to how the breath and blood evidence was obtained that ultimately prevented them from being able to “prove impairment beyond a reasonable doubt.” Dooies does not provide specifics.
District Attorney Sean Spiering would later state during Genens' sentencing hearing that within 24-48 hours that Skip Hedges, the DA's office's own sworn investigator, took over, stopping the North Carolina Highway trooper from continuing his investigation.
The DA's office chooses a plea deal and Genens appears in court.
According to court transcripts, during the plea hearing, Judge Frank Jones asks Genens what his intentions in court are; Genens replies, "Pleading guilty to running the woman down and killing her."
The court accepts Genens’ guilty plea to the reduced charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving.
Genens' defense attorney Rhett Pollock argues for leniency. According to court records, he notes Genens has been sober for 81 days and has attended therapist appointments since the accident. He says Genens has been “deeply and forever affected by” the accident and is “very emotional.”
Genens offers a short apology to Stewart’s family, although records show he initially faces away from Stewart's family, Dr. Tia and Woody Jones. When he does look at the Joneses, he says:
“Yeah, well, I am so sorry. It was a terrible accident. I know y'all hate me and I don't blame you. I'm sorry.”
Pollock characterizes Genens as a “hard-working man” and submits short statements from two people he had a business relationship with as character references.
Stewart’s parents will later say they are perplexed, wondering why Genenss criminal record is not mentioned. He has previously been convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer, driving while drinking, possession of narcotics, disorderly conduct, and driving without liability insurance. Many of the violations initially resulted in jail or prison sentences — but all were suspended in favor of special probation.
Judge Jones notes the findings are a compromise in the void of known facts. He then gives this analogy: "We were telling stories the other night amongst the family, one of my earliest memories of a child was the loss of a favorite pet, and our daughter came up and said, "Daddy, fix it." And I told her, I could not. I couldn't fix it. Ladies and gentlemen, I can't fix this either."
But with critical evidence mishandled and inadmissible, court transcripts record Judge Jones saying, “The most that I can do would be seven and a quarter months incarceration. In my discretion, however, I cannot and will not measure the value of the life of Justice Stewart by any seven months, any amount of time.”
Then, Judge Jones imposes this sentence:
“Let the defendant be imprisoned for a minimum 16 months, maximum 29 months in the custody of the North Carolina Division of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice.”
And adds this condition:
"The execution of that sentence is suspended. The defendant is placed on supervised probation for a period of 60 months…As special conditions of probation, the defendant is to serve a split sentence of 120 days.”
At the end of the day, William Genens will serve only 120 nonconsecutive days behind bars, 60 days starting the day of sentencing, then 30 more days starting — coincidentally — on Stewart's birthday in December, and 30 more days next year at the same time.
'I didn't think it could get worse'
The victim’s parents are devastated. In an interview, Stewart’s mother will later say the sentence does not fit the crime, and that Justice did not receive justice.
“When you take a life for doing something that you've done previously, it should definitely be taken into account and brought back up and held against you because you've already been given opportunities, you've been given chances,” Dr. Jones said.
Dr. Jones adds that the light sentence forces her to relive the tragedy: “I didn't think it could get worse than the first day that they said, you know what happened and she was hit and killed by a drunk driver. But after that sentencing, I went right back to that.”
They also are unsure of why Genens' actions at the scene were not mentioned in trial or known to them until the September 29th DA's press release, a day after the sentencing. “They thought we were going to applaud the fact he didn't keep running. But he took out his phone. He called his family to make sure he would be alright,” said Woody Jones.
The Joneses now say they will pursue civil legal action, although they did not discuss specific defendants they might name.
Legal action could bring up the issue of Genens' property transactions in the wake of Stewart's death. According to Onslow County public records, Genens signed a series of quitclaim deeds, selling his property to his adult children and Holden LLC — a company of which he is a part-owner — for the sum of $1.00 each, just 9 days after Lt Stewart’s death.
When the Joneses asked about this, they were told it was "to pay for his attorney." Though it is unclear what his intent was, North Carolina State Law has a list of conditions in which these sales could be reversed; the law is designed to prevent people from transferring assets out of the reach of the court when damages or judgments could be assigned.
It's not clear what shape a civil case will take, but for the Jones family, legal action could provide answers — and closure — that the criminal justice system has not.
”The core of what I want out of everything." says Dr. Jones "I just want the truth. And I want people to know the truth. And I don't want what happened to Justice to happen to others.”
As the Jones family moves forward, Dr. Jones says that she has partnered with Justice's unit at 2d Marine Division, Headquarters Batallion to host a “For the Love of Justice” 5k run on Highway 50 in her honor.
The Joneses have also started a non-profit, a life goal Justice wrote down before her untimely death.
The ”Empowering Justice Foundation… the key goal is promoting pathways out of poverty… for our family education was paramount. And so we will be giving scholarships and grants to high school students, but also putting an emphasis on college students that are in ROTC programs," says Dr. Jones.
In addition to her notable service as a Marine officer, Justice Stewart was also a jewelry designer, songwriter, and published poet. She produced and wrote a music video she put to her spoken word poetry, you can view it in the link below.