Note: This story was last updated at 8:20 p.m.
CLINTON—Lee Harold Cromwell, 67, the Oak Ridge man convicted of vehicular homicide in a fatal parking lot crash at Midtown Community Center after July 4 fireworks two years ago, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Monday.
Cromwell—a self-proclaimed sovereign citizen driving on a suspended license, according to court records and testimony—was actually sentenced in nine separate cases. He had been convicted on all nine counts at the end of a three-day trial in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton in February. Besides reckless vehicular homicide, the nine convictions included eight counts of aggravated assault.
Senior Judge Paul Summers of Nashville announced the effective 12-year sentence at the end of a roughly four-hour sentencing hearing in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton on Monday afternoon.
The convictions had been split into three groups. The first group included the reckless vehicular homicide conviction, which was filed over the death of James Robinson, who died pushing his two young daughters to safety as Cromwell backed his Dodge Ram pickup truck through the crowded parking lot of Midtown Community Center on July 4, 2015. Witnesses said Cromwell backed up at a high rate of speed. That first group of convictions also included three aggravated assault convictions for injuries to James Robinson’s wife, Julia Robinson, and their two young daughters, now 11 and nine. Cromwell received an effective five-year sentence for those first four convictions.
Cromwell received an effective four-year sentence for aggravated assault convictions for injuries to two other victims (the second group) and an effective three-year sentence for aggravated assault convictions for injuries to three other victims (the third group).
The three groups of sentences are to be served consecutively for a total of 12 years (five years for the first group of convictions, four years for the second, and three years for the third).
Summers said Cromwell should be thankful he wasn’t charged with second-degree murder after the crash, one of the worst anyone can remember in Oak Ridge. He called Cromwell’s actions callous and heinous, causing victims and families to suffer for many years, and the judge said Cromwell acted with reckless disregard for human life.
“The defendant had multiple opportunities to stop the carnage,” Summers said.
After hearing from witnesses for both the prosecution and defense, including Julia Robinson, the wife of the man who died, Summers evaluated sentence enhancing factors cited by Deputy District Attorney General Tony Craighead and mitigating factors cited by Public Defender Tom Marshall. Summers also evaluated whether the sentences for the nine separate cases should be served consecutively or concurrently. He chose a combination of consecutive and concurrent sentences.
The reckless vehicular homicide conviction had a sentence range of three to six years. The aggravated assault convictions had a sentence range of two to four years each.
Marshall had asked for a three-year suspended sentence. Craighead had requested an effective 11-year sentence. The sentence imposed by Summers is actually longer than that recommended by the state.
Summers found no mitigating sentencing factors and cited several enhancement factors. They included what he said was the criminal behavior of Cromwell: driving without a license; driving on a suspended license; filing fraudulent liens after the July 4, 2015, parking lot crash, which was itself a crime; and being indicted for filing fraudulent liens. Also, the offense involved more than one victim, and there was suffering and great financial hardship, Summers said. He said some additional cases that might have been prosecuted were dismissed to keep children from having to testify. The crash occurred in the dark in a very crowded parking lot, and the assault could have injured untold dozens of others, the judge said.
“This was an aggravated offense,” Summers said.
Extended confinement is necessary, and consecutive sentences are appropriate for dangerous offenders, he said.
“It’s necessary to protect society,” Summers said.
At the end of the trial in February, when he revoked bond, the judge said Cromwell hadn’t shown remorse, although the defense has disputed that, including during the sentencing hearing on Monday.
Cromwell gave his first extended public statement about the crash during a statement that lasted more than 30 minutes on Monday. It was not given under oath, meaning he was not subject to cross-examination.
Cromwell recited many Bible verses or parts of Bible verses, and he talked some about his experiences in prison. He also talked about his childhood, his children and grandchildren, and his community service.
Among other things, he disputed witness testimony during the three-day trial in February and in the preliminary hearing in January 2016 that he had hit a vehicle, stopped, hit a vehicle, and stopped again—before accelerating backward, killing James Robinson, and injuring at least eight others.
“That never happened,” Cromwell said.
Instead, he said, he had backed up about 75-80 feet under normal conditions when he heard a shrill noise, and then the truck was “wide open” after that.
“I am sorry for what happened,” he said.
According to earlier testimony, Cromwell had told several people, including Oak Ridge Police Department Detective Ben Higgins, that his throttle had stuck. But Higgins and witnesses disputed that, saying that Cromwell’s engine had been heard revving up and down, which wouldn’t be consistent with a stuck throttle. An evaluation at Secret City Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram found nothing wrong with the throttle body linkage, meaning the throttle had not malfunctioned, and there were no active recalls that would have affected the throttle, Higgins said in affidavits filed July 22, 2015.
Higgins testified again Monday that when he asked Cromwell for his license the night of the crash, Cromwell gave him an expired Tennessee Valley Authority identification card. Cromwell said he didn’t need a license, Higgins said, and he handed the police officer a packet asserting that he demanded all rights at all times.
“I asked him, are you a sovereign citizen?” Higgins testified. “He said ‘yes.'”
Cromwell has said that, as a sovereign citizen, he doesn’t need a state driver’s license because he’s not engaged in commerce, Summers said in an April 24 order.
During Monday’s hearing, Craighead and Summers also raised the $137 million worth of liens that Cromwell has filed against law enforcement officials and agencies, including Anderson County Criminal Court Don Elledge, who had to recuse himself, as well as against the Internal Revenue Service and a Social Security service center. There are separate fraudulent liens cases pending against Cromwell and 10 other East Tennessee residents in Davidson County.
Cromwell has explained why he filed those liens, according to the April 24 order filed by Summers. In that order, the judge said Cromwell insisted he felt bad for the dead and injured, but he was the victim of a conspiracy, specifically one in which his truck had been taken from him. The Dodge Ram pickup truck remains in a police impound lot as evidence, Higgins said during the sentencing hearing on Monday. Cromwell said he filed the millions of dollars worth of liens against people in an attempt to “secure his interest in his truck, which was paid for and worth $10,000,” Summers said in the April 24 order.
“He was more worried about his truck than the death of Mr. Robinson,” Summers said Monday.
It was one of the few times Cromwell has talked publicly in court. One of the few other times—maybe the only other time—was when he objected to the gold-fringed flag at the front of the Anderson County Criminal Court during a pre-trial motion hearing last year.
Victims also gave statements Monday, including Julia Robinson and Michael Eldridge. They described their ongoing physical and emotional pain, and Julia Robinson described the challenges of being the sole provider and the only parent of two young girls. Their father will never meet their boyfriends, see them graduate, or walk them down the aisle, she said.
“Because of your actions, my children now have to live with this for the rest of their lives,” Robinson said.
As a Range I standard offender, Cromwell has a 30 percent release eligibility.
His sentencing had initially been scheduled for April 11, but it was delayed after Cromwell fired defense attorney James Scott and Marshall was appointed instead.
More information will be added as it becomes available.