Widow seeking $5 million in police-involved crash testifies

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Faustina Sargent remembers her husband as a kind-hearted optimist who loved golfing, car racing and who accepted her two grown sons like his own. On cold nights, she and Willie would cocoon themselves in blankets, sit on their deck and talk for hours.

Those times came to an abrupt end the night of Dec. 15, 2006, when Faustina Sargent arrived at her Snellville home to find police officers and a chaplain waiting for her, she testified in a civil trial Tuesday. When she recalled staying awake until 6 a.m. -- until she saw on broadcast news her husband's 1990 Plymouth Acclaim upside-down, confirming for her what police had said, that Willie Sargent Jr., 51, had died at the scene -- a female juror openly cried.

"I miss doing all the nice things with him," Faustina Sargent testified, dabbing her eyes with tissues.

The testimony highlighted the second day of a jury trial to determine if the widow is due a wrongful death payout from county coffers. She's seeking $5 million in damages, claiming Gwinnett police Officer James Stoudenmire, then 25, was negligent in causing the crash on U.S. Highway 78 that night, as an internal police investigation found.

Accident experts determined Stoudenmire, who'd been patrolling for only a few months, was traveling to a non-emergency call at 78 mph in a 45 mph zone with his lights and sirens off. Sargent was headed the opposite direction and trying to turn left.

Stoudenmire received minor injuries that didn't require medical attention.

The county's attorney, Michael O'Quinn, called Stoudenmire as a witness in an effort to paint his responding to the call as valiant and to illustrate his contriteness.

Stoudenmire testified that he was the only available officer in the area that night to provide backup. He responded to the call in a hurry because it sounded suspicious, he said.

Another officer who was the primary responder to the call testified Monday that it was clearly "Code 3," or a non-emergency. A homeless man calling from a gas station wanted to turn himself in on a misdemeanor warrant.

"It's a terrible thing that happened," Stoudenmire testified. "I hate that it happened."

For his actions, Stoudenmire was suspended from the department for 24 days without pay and then relegated to desk work for three months. He was also sent back to the police academy to re-train in emergency response, he testified.

Stoudenmire resigned from the force following an off-duty DUI arrest in 2009. He later pleaded guilty to reckless driving and received two years probation, court records show.

Outside the jury's presence, O'Quinn argued that evidence showing Willie Sargent was legally drunk at the time he died should be allowed; Gwinnett State Court Judge Carla Brown disagreed, calling that evidence "extraordinarily prejudicial."

Closing arguments in the trial are expected Wednesday.