Court sentences Frank D. Lee to 80 years in prison
Frank D. “Punchy” Lee, 45, of Teller was sentenced to 80 years flat time in jail for the stabbing death of William Johnson, 31, in Teller on July 14, 2017.
Flat time generally means a convict must serve the complete sentence with no early release for probation, parole or good time.
Judge Romano D. DiBenedetto pronounced Lee’s prison term at a sentencing hearing in Nome July 11.
Lee pleaded not guilty to the charges: Murder First Degree with Intent To Cause Death and Murder Two—Extreme Indifference [to the value of human life], both unclassified felonies at his arraignment July 27, 2017.
In October last year, Lee changed his plea to guilty to Murder Two—Extreme Indifference [to the value of human life]. Under the plea agreement, the charge of Murder First Degree was dismissed. Lee was looking at a maximum sentence of 99 years.
During the hearing, District Attorney John Earthman urged the court to mete out the entire 99 years and to find that Lee was a “worst offender”—the worst offender within a description of a crime — also saying the sentence was appropriate because of Lee’s prior convictions across a broad spectrum of crime types, and that outlook for his rehabilitation was dismal. That Lee had killed Johnson while he was on parole from his sentence on criminally negligent homicide in the “Shaken Baby” death of his infant son, Harley Dickson, seven months old, in 2008 was noted throughout the hearing.
Witnesses in Teller told Alaska State Trooper Timothy Smith that there had been an argument outside the home of Frank David “Punchy” Lee, 43, between Lee and Johnson. As the altercation progressed, Lee went into his house looked around in a drawer and returned with a knife in each hand, according to the AST report document filed by Smith and court information. Lee stabbed Johnson with one knife and then turned the knife on himself.
In his July 11 sentencing hearing, one learned that Lee had stabbed Johnson, then walked away and stabbed himself, feigning a necessity of self-defense against Johnson.
An emergency flight took Lee to Anchorage for treatment of a self-inflicted injury to his abdomen, according to court documents. Law enforcement arrested Lee in Anchorage on a $100,000 warrant.
He was returned to Nome to face charges and has been in custody in segregation at Anvil Mountain Correctional since his arrest.
The Johnson family and a member of Lee’s family attended the sentencing hearing and exercised their right to testify about their loss before sentence was pronounced.
“What he did changed my life. My family fell apart. I cry every day,” William Johnson’s mother, Francine Johnson, told the court. The victim hunted for subsistence food and helped her raise younger siblings, she said. “It hurts me just to live. He was my son for 30 years. I lost a piece of my heart. He had two sons.”
“What you did was wrong. Some day you are going to face the Master [and the consequences],”she said. “The fear of a parent is to their child. Now you have taken another’s child.”
William Johnson’s aunt addressed the court via telephone.
“I have watched my sister [Francine] suffer for two years,” Davida Hanson said. “There will never be closure for this family. This man should be put away for life; I hope that is the decision of the court today.”
“The man who killed my brother has done nothing but bad things. Walking free he has had the opportunity to hurt someone again,” Angela Hopson, Johnson’s sister told the court.
Johnson’s teenage sister said she had been out of town for treatment four times since her brother’s death. “My 16th birthday was flying to my brother’s funeral,” she told the court. “I forgive you, but I will never forget what you did, Punchy,” the young woman said, addressing Lee by his nickname.
William Johnson’s brother, Francis Rochon, was the next to take a seat in the jury box before the microphone set up for family members. He spoke directly across the courtroom to Lee.
“It takes a lot of heart to get on the [jail van] to come here,” Rochon told Lee. “If I had followed my brother, would you have killed me, too? I am never going to get an answer, am I?”
Julia Lee, Frank Lee’s sister testified by telephone.
“This hurt two families,” she said. “I am alone in Teller now. My brother Frank Lee could have ended up dead for all I know.
“Locking him up for life isn’t going to fix anything,” she said. “It was a bad accident that happened. Both families are torn. This was a freak accident.”
The prospects of Lee’s parole and rehabilitation were dismal, Earthman told the court. He had criminal history and anti-social risk against him. Lee had no military service and had been unemployed or minimally employed. He had long standing alcohol abuse. He had felonies including three assaults in his background.
“He killed his child by severe trauma,” Earthman said.
Earthman asked the court for a finding of “worst offender” and 99 years as a sentence. “Mr. Lee merits the consequences of 99 years. He has earned 99 years,” Earthman told the court. A maximum sentence would enforce deterrence of others from committing a similar crime and serve community condemnation, Earthman said.
James Ferguson, Lee’s attorney, spoke on the defendant’s behalf: While in jail at AMCC, Lee had taken self-improvement courses. He had volunteered for prison duties. He had acknowledged his crime and the role of alcohol in his life. He had made instructive artwork that counseled young defendants to avoid alcohol and drugs. Lee had chosen to plead guilty rather than put the Johnson family through a trial, Ferguson said.
Lee had had it rough as a child growing up. Lee had taken care of his wheelchair bound father who had abused him, Ferguson continued.
“Mr. Lee has learned he cannot escape his grief through alcohol” with which Lee had struggled since he was 13, Ferguson said. The state’s portrayal of Lee as irredeemable was inaccurate, Ferguson said.
Through his attorney, Lee asked for a sentence of 51 years with 20 years suspended and 20 years’ probation supervision. That would be 31 years active sentence to serve—the age of William Johnson when Lee killed him and hang 20 years suspended sentence over his head. Imposition of any additional time would be jail for jail’s sake, Ferguson said. At best, the lighter sentence could turn out to be a life sentence for Lee, Fergerson said, citing the average life expectancy of a Native Alaskan male.
He was sorry about what happened, Lee told the court.
”I’m not a bad guy. I made mad life choices,” he said. “Obviously the family has seen pictures of us together. I can’t explain the ending. Alcohol was a factor. Alcohol was a very hard addiction for me to kick,” Lee said.
“I apologize to Mr. Johnson’s mom. I didn’t know he had children. The sentence is up to you,” Lee told the court. ..I am going to advocate for sobriety.”
He was going to make himself an example in encouraging others to make better choices, Lee said. “I destroyed a whole family.”
In fashioning a sentence, DiBenedetto said, he had to follow the law in considering things like deterrence, social condemnation and restoration o the victim.
“Nothing I can say will bring Mr. Johnson back. Nothing I can say will bring him back to his family,” DiBenedetto said. “This region does not need me to tell people murder is wrong.”
Lee’s criminal history covers a broad range of types of crimes, the judge said—burglaries, assaults, manslaughter, for these reasons he had a poor view of rehabilitation of Lee. When on probation or parole, Lee had violated conditions of release. Lee had been given slack on prior offenses that did not work out.
DiBenedetto found Lee to be a “worst offender.”
“Rehabilitation starts with value of human life. You don’t value adult lives, you don’t value children’s lives. For rehabilitation you have to value the lives in your community,” DiBenedetto said.