RACINE — It’s been nearly three years since Wanda Payton-Gregory lost her son in a 2015 crash, and the pain hasn’t dulled.
“As a mother, I will never see my son again,” Payton-Gregory said. “I’ll never have grandchildren from him.”
Earlier this month, Payton-Gregory was shocked to hear that the conviction of Dartavian Watson, the man sentenced in the OWI crash that killed her son, was overturned due to what was later determined to be an illegal blood draw by the Racine Police Department.
“I feel like the Racine Police Department really dropped the ball on this one in a lot of ways,” Payton-Gregory said.
‘Coerced’ blood draw
On Oct. 8, 2015, Watson, 22, was driving on Mound Avenue and failed to stop at the intersection of West Sixth Street and Mound Avenue, and crashed into a building, according to a criminal complaint. Witnesses said he was traveling at speeds between 60 mph and 70 mph.
Payton-Gregory’s son, 25-year-old Robert Johnson, a passenger in the vehicle, died two days later from head injuries. The vehicle’s other passenger was also injured, but survived.
Watson was asked to submit to a blood draw and read an Informing the Accused form, which stated that if he refused a test, his operating privileges would be revoked and he would be subject to other penalties.
The blood draw determined that Watson had marijuana in his system and a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 — 0.03 more than the legal limit of 0.08.
According to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, because Watson was told his license would be revoked for refusing a chemical test, which was technically not true, the consent for the blood draw was deemed coerced and his conviction was overturned.
“It’s almost three years later and they are just now figuring it out?” Payton-Gregory said.
Racine Police Chief Art Howell stood by the work of his officers and investigators regarding the crash investigation.
“The loss of life in this case represents the greatest area of concern. In reviewing the investigative steps taken to secure and preserve critical evidence under the implied consent law, proper protocol was followed,” Howell said in comments emailed to The Journal Times.
“Under Wisconsin’s implied consent law, where probable cause exists to request a blood, breath or urine sample, refusal to comply with such a lawful request exposes the refusing party to specific sanctions, including revocation of driving privileges,” Howell continued. “When establishing probable cause, police action must be reasonable and articulable.”
Howell said that in investigating the crash, officers took a number of factors into account in developing probable cause to request a blood sample.
“From the extremely reckless driving that proceeded this fatal accident (where speeds reached 60-70 mph), to Watson’s inability to safely maintenance control of his vehicle, it was reasonable to consider driver factors and impairment as contributing factors in this accident,” Howell wrote. “As evidenced by the results, the assessment of impairment was accurate.”
What was more concerning to Payton-Gregory, is the fact that she was not notified about Watson’s overturned conviction, despite being notified about other court proceedings against him.
She first found out about the overturned conviction after a friend of her son sent her a text message, stating that he had seen a story about it in The Journal Times on June 23.
“I was in shock, more or less,” Payton-Gregory said. “Mostly because I had received no form of communication from the District Attorney’s Office. That was the first time I had ever heard about it.”
Payton-Gregory made it very clear that she does not wish to slander Watson or his family, but is hurt that she won’t have the opportunity to make any new memories with her son.
“I understand the part that he (Watson) played is something he will have to live with for the rest of his life,” Payton-Gregory said. “I don’t think he set out to intentionally harm by son, but this situation makes me feel like my son’s life had no importance.”
The Racine County District Attorney’s Office did not return requests for comment regarding the overturned conviction.
Howell, meanwhile, said his department will continue to follow developments in this case to determine if policy changes will be required moving forward.
“However, based on the facts as currently known, officers acted in good faith in the interest of public safety,” the chief said.
“I understand the part that he (Dartavian Watson) played is something he will have to live with for the rest of his life. I don’t think he set out to intentionally harm by son, but this situation makes me feel like my son’s life had no importance.” — Wanda Payton-Gregory, mother of Robert Johnson, who died in a 2015 crash