AUGUSTA — A Windsor man who was high on pills and marijuana when the Jeep he was driving struck and killed an Augusta woman two years ago is headed to prison.

Joshua A. Erskine, 26, was sentenced Friday in Kennebec County Superior Court to 12 years in prison with all but six years suspended for killing Ruth Epperson, 81, as she walked on a sidewalk on March 30, 2012. Erskine, whose driver’s license will be suspended for at least 10 years, also was sentenced to four years of probation, during which he will be prohibited from consuming drugs or alcohol and will be subject to random searches and testing.

Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy said the sentence was an attempt to balance Erskine’s remorse and previously unblemished criminal record against the reckless and criminal conduct that killed a woman who, by all accounts, lived an exemplary life.

APOLOGY TO FAMILY

“This process is highly imperfect, particularly in cases like this,” Murphy said.

Before he was sentenced, Erskine — who in January pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated criminal operating under the influence — apologized to family members gathered in the courtroom, including Epperson’s sister, children and a granddaughter. Erskine’s family, too, was in the courtroom. Members of both families wept quietly throughout the proceedings.

“I didn’t want this to happen,” he said. “I hope whatever happens will bring them peace and hopefully a little bit of justice.”

Erskine’s 1999 Jeep Cherokee was traveling east on North Belfast Avenue around 3:30 p.m. the day of the crash. Erskine, who was driving about 17 mph over the posted 30 mph speed limit, lost control of the Jeep, which crossed over the westbound lane, went onto the sidewalk and struck another vehicle that was parked in a driveway. Erskine’s Jeep then careened into Epperson, who was out for a walk she took nearly every day. Epperson never regained consciousness and died at Maine Medical Center in Portland on April 5, 2012, five days after the crash.

‘AGONAL BREATHING’

Erskine, who repeatedly nodded off when examined by a drug recognition expert from the Maine State Police, admitted to downing two 30 mg pills of the opioid prescription drug Percocet around noon and smoking two bowls of marijuana about an hour before the crash.

Assistant District Attorney Joelle Pratt, who argued for the six-year prison sentence followed by four years’ probation ultimately imposed by Murphy, said Erskine knowingly ingested drugs that caused him to leave the road, hit a parked car, and hit and ultimately kill Epperson. Pratt, who listed a litany of injuries Epperson suffered, said the woman over the last six days of her life repeatedly exhibited “agonal breathing,” which is characterized by gasping and moans. Pratt said the breathing was a sign of the suffering Epperson continued to endure despite being treated with the most potent pain medication available.

But Erskine’s attorney, Pamela Ames, who argued for a nine-month sentence followed by four years of probation, said agonal breathing does not necessarily indicate the patient is suffering.

“We don’t know,” Ames said. “The assumption is she did.”

Ames said Erskine was self-medicating for a wrestling injury suffered in high school that was exacerbated by a job that required heavy lifting. While the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol have been widely publicized, the public is less aware of the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs, Ames said. She said Erskine, who had driven under the influence of drugs before without a problem, believed he was able to drive safely. In arguing for the nine-month sentence, Ames urged Murphy to impose community service that would require Erskine to share his story with students.

“What good is it going to do to throw him in prison and throw away the key?” Ames asked. “He’s just a young man who made an absolute terrible decision.”

Murphy lauded Erskine for his remorse and work ethic, but the sentence was lengthened by Erskine’s “significant” impairment during the crash and the suffering Epperson experienced before her death.

“This was not a slow and easy death,” Murphy said. “Mrs. Epperson fought for life for six days before she died.”

VICTIM STATEMENTS

Murphy said victim statements prepared by Epperson’s family urged the judge to find ways to help Erskine deal with his substance abuse. The statements even urged Murphy to show leniency.

“Mrs. Epperson is the kind of woman who would have wanted compassion for Mr. Erskine,” Murphy said.

Murphy said the statements made it clear that Epperson’s death has had a tremendous impact on the family and the community at large. A nurse for 20 years at Augusta General Hospital, Epperson volunteered at her grandchildren’s day care and the Augusta Food Bank and was active in charity work through her church. Family members have said the biggest void is felt by Epperson’s husband, Clyde Epperson.

“She was married happily for more than 56 years,” Murphy said. “That simple number alone tells us all we need to know about how this has impacted him.”

Craig Crosby can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:[email protected]