A sobbing, tortured defendant who is remorseful for driving drunk with his two children… or a man who still makes poor choices and drank alcohol just last weekend at a bachelor party. Those were the contrasting views District Judge Steve Ellis saw of Clifton Netherton Tuesday in 35th District Court.
Ellis sentenced Netherton, 27, to five years probation, but ordered him confined to a Substance Abuse Felony Punishment (SAFP) facility for 90 days to a year as a condition of probation. Ellis also fined Netherton $3,000 and ordered him to be held at the Brown County Jail until a SAFP bed is available for him.
Netherton pleaded guilty to DWI with a child passenger, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in state jail, without the benefit of a plea bargain. Netherton, a divorced father of three who has a record of previous offenses, was taken from the courtroom in handcuffs after Ellis announced the sentence and ordered him taken into custody.
Defense attorney Patrick Howard asked Ellis to place his client on probation. Prosecutor Sam Moss told Ellis he’d been prepared to ask for state jail time, but said he wouldn’t oppose probation if it included SAFP as a condition.
Netherton testified that he has been working at Central Texas Builders for about two weeks and previously worked for Driftwood Designs.
Moss presented the state’s case through the testimony of Brownwood patrolman Brandon Arnold. Netherton was driving an extended cab pickup occupied by two other adults and two of Netherton’s three children - an 8-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter - at high speed through a Brownwood neighborhood the afternoon of Jan. 19, 2008, Arnold testified.
The pickup drove through a yard, hit a telephone pole guy wire and kept going. Arnold stopped the pickup a few minutes later, believed Netherton was intoxicated and arrested him. A blood test showed his blood alcohol content was .20, Arnold testified.
Netherton, answering questions from his attorney, quickly admitted what he had done. “I was drunk,” Netherton told Ellis. “I got really, really drunk that day.”
He said he was depressed over his recent divorce and over the murder of the mother of two of his children. Natasha Deeds, to whom he was never married, moved from Brownwood to Killeen in 2003 and was shot to death later that year.
The two children Deeds bore to him live with him, while his third child lives with his ex-wife, Netherton testified.
On Jan. 19, he said, relatives came by to cheer him up, and the cheering up involved alcohol.
Netherton, sobbing frequently as he answered Howard’s questions, said he understood the seriousness of driving drunk with his children and said he wasn’t making excuses. “I could have hurt somebody. I could have killed my kids,” he said.
Netherton acknowledged a criminal record dating to 1997, when he was placed on probation as a juvenile for assault. He was placed on probation in 2001 for possession of marijuana, and again in 2003 for forgery.
He was also arrested in other cases that did not result in prosecution.
“It’s fair to say there’s a little bit of a pattern,” Howard told Netherton. “If you get probation, is it something you’re going to eek out until the next thing comes?”
Later, Netherton told Ellis, “I messed up, and I’m truly sorry.”
Every time Netherton has had a court date related to his Jan. 19 arrest, Netherton said, he has told his children “daddy may not be coming home today.”
Under Moss’ cross-examination, Netherton acknowledged he had previously used cocaine and methamphetamine. Moss told Netherton, “I wouldn’t suggest you should go to jail except for (the fact) you’ve already been on probation three times. … when’s the last time you bought beer?”
Netherton acknowledged he’d been accompanied with relatives when he bought alcohol at Brookshire’s Friday for a bachelor party.
Netherton at first insisted he hadn’t consumed any alcohol at the party. Reacting to Moss’ apparent skepticism, Netherton said, “I might’ve drank one or two. I don’t remember.”
He had testified earlier that it had been several months since he had consumed alcohol.
In his closing argument, Moss said Netherton has “got a bigger problem than he’s willing to admit. I congratulate him for working and taking care of his kids … at SAFP he can be punished and rehabilitated.”
Howard asked Ellis to “grant this remorseful plea and give Mr. Netherton one last chance. Mr. Netherton is begging for mercy.”
“I’m not without sympathy for you, but you’re going to have to do better than you’ve done,” Ellis told Netherton, noting that he has refused to take advantage of counseling for his emotional problems.
“ … I might’ve done something different if you hadn’t been drinking just last week. This is your last best hope.”