Spell sentenced to 18 years in death of Union Elementary student

By Chris Berendt

July 2, 2014

A Roseboro man who struck and killed a Union Elementary student as she exited a stopped school bus near her Delway Highway home in April 2013 will serve at least 18 years in prison after pleading guilty in Sampson County Superior Court Wednesday.

Johnny Allen Spell, 39, entered guilty pleas to second degree murder, passing a school bus and striking someone resulting in death, felony hit and run and driving while impaired. Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons sentenced Spell to a minimum of 18 years, 8 months and a maximum of 24 years, three months in the N.C. Department of Corrections.

Family members of 7-year-old Alyiah McKenzie Morgan openly wept as they told Spell how his actions on April 23, 2013 took a beautiful girl away from them and affected her family, friends and a community for the rest of their lives. Spell tearfully apologized to Alyiah's family and begged for their forgiveness, saying he never meant to take her life.

Following the guilty plea and prior to sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Barnes read through the facts of the case. She explained how Spell, behind the wheel of a loaded log truck, passed the stopped school bus on U.S. 421, near Herring Road, as it displayed its red lights and extended stop arm.

She said the truck struck and killed Alyiah and did not stop. A short time later, Spell called his boss and said that he did not think he could stop the truck and went into the oncoming lane to avoid striking the bus. He thought he had hit somebody but was scared and kept driving, Barnes read.

Law enforcement later apprehended Spell, who it was found had ingested methamphetamine the day before and two Vicodin around midnight.

Two of Alyiah's family members made statements in open court.

Rosabell Martinez, Alyiah's mother's cousin, told Spell that on April 23, a decision he made changed the lives of many and took “a miracle child, a precious beautiful girl” away from her mother and siblings, a niece away from loving aunts and uncles and a loved classmate from Ms. Powell's Union Elementary class.

“You took that love and that life away,” Martinez said as she continuously wiped away tears. “It would take too long to address everyone this tragedy has affected. I would like to personally thank you for taking responsibility and not putting this family through any more pain. Now do something positive to influence the lives of others and never forget the life you have taken.”

Alyiah's aunt Starlene Morgan sobbed as she addressed Spell, until words could no longer be uttered. Spell cried as Martinez, and then Morgan, spoke to him.

“No words can describe what you've done,” said Morgan, as she described how her sister tried to have a baby for so long before Alyiah was born, giving her the “miracle child” moniker. “None of our lives will be the same.”

Attorney Melissa Hales, who represented Spell, called it “one of the most difficult cases” of her career. She said everything Alyiah's relatives said was true.

“Nothing can bring this child back,” Hales said. “This is not something (Spell) has dealt with callously. I think you can see how much this has affected him. He has two daughters of his own. He has wept over this child. He has regretted this decision every single day since this happened.”

Parsons read through the charges, which tallied maximum sentences of more than 50 years. He asked Spell if he wanted to say anything.

Spell said passing the bus was “a split decision” and said he knew he could not stop the then-packed school bus in time or he would risk hitting and possibly killing more children.

“I'm sorry. I never wanted to take that little girl's life. I want you to find in your heart where you can forgive me —I know it's tough,” Spell said, his voice shaking.

Before sentencing, Parsons called the death a “senseless tragedy,” stating that it shows the horrible combination that comes with alcohol, drugs and driving. He said Spell's judgment in taking meth and then getting behind the wheel of a log truck took the life of an innocent girl and would forever affect her family as it would Spell and his family. he said he would impose what he felt to be a suitable punishment.

“Everybody loses. They've lost a niece, a daughter, a sister and your daughters have lost you,” the judge stated to Spell. “You have two daughters. When you get out, you will have missed the majority of those years with your daughters.”

Parsons subsequently sentenced Spell to a minimum of 224 to a maximum of 291 months in prison and Spell, already cuffed and in an orange prison jumpsuit, was taken away.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.