CLEVELAND, Ga. — James Holcomb, the man accused of hitting 3-year-old Easton Cain in a grocery store parking lot while he was high on methamphetamine, pleaded guilty on Thursday to vehicular homicide and DUI charges in relation to the boy's death. He also pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine from a separate charge. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with a mandatory 14 years served behind bars.
Police said Holcomb, 37, was slumped behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Avalanche on Jan. 17, 2017 in the Ingles parking lot on Helen Highway in Cleveland when his car rolled forward into Easton Cain, who was standing by his mother, Kala Cain, behind their parked Ford Explorer as she loaded groceries into the car. She also had her 16-month-old with her as well.
Prosecutors said blood tests later reveled Holcomb had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the crash. Witnesses from the grocery store parking lot told the court on Thursday that they scrambled to stop Holcomb’s car, while he was unresponsive in the driver’s seat.
Gayle Pitts, who was parked in front of Holcomb’s car, rushed to help Easton’s mother.
“We were screaming at him and he wasn’t responding at us, not looking at us,” Pitts said. She said she heard his engine continuing to rev up, with Easton pinned into the car.
She said she helped Kala Easton pull Easton into the back of her SUV, trying to stabilize him and talk to him before paramedics arrived.
“He was breathing, but not really good. He cried a couple of times,” Pitts said. “We were talking to him, telling him to breathe.”
As she described the scene in court, Pitts started to cry and others could be heard sobbing through the courtroom as well.
PHOTOS | 3-year-old Easton Cain
Allen Irvin, who was also in the parking lot at the time, told the courtroom he witnessed Holcomb’s car pull forward up to 15 feet before stopping.
“I saw the driver slumped forward as if he was asleep,” Irvin said on the stand. “The mother was holding the boy’s hand the whole time.”
Sobs could be heard throughout the courtroom when Easton's father, Casey Cain, took the stand to talk about the impact of his son's death on his family.
"To this day, have you ever turned off the light to Easton's bedroom?" The prosecutor asked Casey Cain.
"We have not," he replied.
Holcomb, the son of a White County commissioner, was charged with vehicular homicide, DUI, reckless driving, driving with an expired license and operating a vehicle without insurance. He was also charged with one count of meth possession.
The case is also making its way through civil court, as the Cain family seeks restitution for their son’s death.
The prosecution also asked the court for a special provision – banishment from White County “due to trauma caused by this defendant in the community.” The prosecution also asked for Holcomb to never be able to obtain a driver's license again. The judge denied both of those requests on Thursday.
"I feel like he is a danger to this community," said Cleveland Police Chief John Foster in a prior court hearing in January 2017. "I believe if he is released, he will commit another felony,"
Holcomb, the son of White County commissioner Lyn Holcomb, has a lengthy criminal record.
Court records show Holcomb was arrested for DUI arrests in 2001, 2002 and 2008. In his first DUI arrest, Holcomb wasn't even old enough to drink alcohol. Yet, that case and a 2002 accident and DUI were never prosecuted and subsequently dismissed by a judge in 2005, because the statute of limitations had expired.
Before today's sentencing, the judge presiding over Holcomb's case issued a gag order preventing anyone from speaking or releasing details about the case. Because of that gag order, issued in June, the White County Clerk of Court told 11Alive she couldn't even give the station the case number, or confirm today's hearing was even taking place.
First Amendment attorney Derek Bauer said he believes that gag order was unconstitutional.
"When you're asking about justice being dispensed to family members of elected officials, the public absolutely needs to be able to speak to court personnel, to law enforcement, to prosecutors, to defense counsel ... to make sure the public feels comfortable that everyone is getting equal justice," Bauer said.
It is unclear whether the judge lifted his own gag order -- because while he allowed cameras in the courtroom on Thursday, the Clerk of Court maintains it is still in effect and they cannot release court documents in this case.
"The public has a right to question our government, our government officials, our prosecutors about how and why he has been treated the way he has in our justice system, in the past," Bauer said. "Those are legitimate questions any citizen should be able to ask. The gag order prohibits that."
HOLCOMB'S ARREST HISTORY IN WHITE COUNTY
- DUI under 21 | Arrested at Circle K on Oct. 25, 2001 | Age: 20
- DUI, failure to maintain lane | Arrested on GA 75 on Jan. 11, 2002 | Age: 20
- Possession of marijuana | Arrested at 129/Jersey Drive on Jan. 19, 2003 | Age: 22
- Time to serve | Turned self in on March 14, 2003 | Age: 22
- Order of incarceration | Remanded, Lumpkin County Courthouse on June 4, 2003 | Age: 22
- Contempt of court | Arrested at Lumpkin County Sheriff's Office on April 9, 2003 | Age: 22
- Time to serve- 8 hours | Arrested at the White County Sheriff's Office on May 23, 2003 | Age: 22
- Time to serve- 28 days | White County Courthouse on Jan. 20, 2004 | Age: 23
- Probation violation | Arrested at the probation office on May 27, 2004 | Age: 23
- DUI, failure to maintain lane | Arrested at Bean Creek on Jan. 21, 2008 | Age: 27
- Reckless driving, first-degree vehicular homicide, D.U.I., operating a vehicle without insurance, driving on an expired license | Arrested at Ingles parking lot on Jan. 17, 2017 | Age: 36