A former Northside High School student was sentenced to 15 years in prison — nine to serve — by a Muscogee County Superior Court judge Friday for his role in a 2012 automobile crash that left his 16-year-old girlfriend dead.
Clayton Qualls, now 19, sat in a blue blazer, white dress shirt and khakis as Judge William Rumer delivered the sentence in the first-degree vehicular manslaughter death of Hannah Gilmer, who had just completed her sophomore year at Northside.
Prosecutor Wesley Lambertus had asked Rumer to send the message to Qualls and other teenagers.
“This is a great opportunity for this court to send a message to our community and all the 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds who feel they are immortal,” Lambertus said.
Rumer cited two contributing factors in his decision to give a much harsher sentence than the two years to serve and a state supervised alcohol rehabilitation program requested by defense attorney John Martin. Qualls, who was driving Gilmer’s car at the time of the fatal wreck, had received a DUI in Harris County 11 days before the June 15, 2012, wreck on County Line Road.
Qualls, Austin Lott and Daniel Hughes Massengale attempted to hide the alcohol after the crash as Gilmer struggled to breathe after being thrown from the car. According to Lambertus, as much as 23 minutes passed after the wreck before anyone called 911.
Qualls purchased Keystone beer and vodka earlier that night using an altered Georgia driver’s license, the prosecutor said.
“These boys abandoned Hannah,” Lambertus told the court. “They left her alone on the ground clinging to life. It was a heartless act, a cruel act, a selfish act.
“They could have at the very least held her hand. They could have stayed with her. And he was her boyfriend.”
Rumer listened intently to Lambertus’ plea.
“What concerns me about the case is the DUI you had in Harris County weeks before instance,” Rumer told Qualls. “What further concerns me is the conduct at the scene.”
The tragedy was preventable, Lambertus told the court.
“Clayton Qualls had a warning 11 days before this happened,” he said. “It should have been a clear warning bell.”
Qualls, Lott and Massengale were in separate cars racing along County Line Road just before the wreck. Qualls, driving his girlfriend’s Scion, was attempting to pass the other two vehicles.
“These boys were speeding, driving recklessly,” Lambertus said. “That is a time bomb. In this case, the bomb exploded and Hannah Gilmer was the casualty.”
The circumstances of the one-car wreck and Gilmer’s death created a two-hour courtroom drama in which parents, siblings, friends, a pastor and a grandfather told of the impact of that night and the decisions made by teenagers.
“This would be her senior year at Northside,” Lisa Gilmer said of her daughter. “She would be going to the prom next week and graduating.” Before sentencing, Gilmer’s father, Mike, testified about the impact of his daughter’s death. He told the court he hadn’t known about Qualls’ Harris County DUI.
He looked directly at his daughter’s boyfriend: “Son, I want some other kid to learn from your mistake.”
Mike Gilmer also talked about the emptiness he feels.
“One day at my house — by myself — I yelled out ‘Hannah Banana,’” he said. “She didn’t come out of her room.”
He said he and his wife have struggled since their daughter was killed.
“I believe in heaven and hell,” Mike Gilmer said. “The past two years me and my wife have not been in hell, but we have been just outside of it.”
The Qualls family has also suffered, said Clayton’s father, Don. The teen’s parents were going through a divorce at the time of the wreck. “Clayton is very quiet,” Don Qualls said. “He wakes up with it every day. He feels very guilty.”
Mike Gilmer said he had been anticipating the court date.
“I have been waiting for this day to happen and get it over with,” he said.
Lisa Gilmer — who held a picture of her daughter — said it will never be over.
“Sleeping is the only part of my day when I can escape the pain,” she said. “Sleeping is the only time I don’t think about what I lost.”
The Gilmers’ pastor, Paul Thomas at Evangel Temple, called the situation “gut-wrenching.”
“I prayed today we begin a new chapter — a chapter of healing,” said Thomas, who had known Hannah since she was a little girl, “and that unconditional forgiveness be involved.”
Then he spoke to Clayton Qualls.
“Clayton, I pray you have sought forgiveness, not just from this family, but from the Lord,” Thomas said. “And that you have forgiven yourself.”
Clayton Qualls gave a brief statement to the court. His voice was soft, and even the court reporter had to strain to hear him. “I can’t say how sorry I am,” he said.