Society Magazine

The Long Fall of John Goodman

Posted on the 24 April 2012 by Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy

The Long Fall of John Goodman

John Goodman on trial

If you’re intrigued by sensational courtroom drama involving the lurid details of the rich and famous, you’ll be fascinated by the recent trial of John Goodman, polo tycoon, founder of the International Polo Club Palm Beach, and popular playboy [1].
In the foggy dark early morning hours of February 12, 2010 Goodman was driving his $200,000 black Bentley along the quiet west county roads near Wellington, Florida. Driving recklessly in low-visibility Goodman ran a stop sign and violently struck a Hyundai driven by 23-year-old engineering student Scott Wilson. The impact was so violent that it knocked Wilson’s car from the road and into an adjacent canal. Wilson trapped in his car, drowned. His Bentley badly damaged from the crash, Goodman left the scene on foot.
He called 9-1-1, an hour later, from the mobile home of a nearby resident. The medical examiner noted that the long delay between the accident and the 9-1-1 call sealed Wilson’s fate. The recording of Goodman’s call (listen here), indicates that he (1) knew he had been in a car accident, (2) it was his fault, and (3) he sounds confused like he’s drunk but trying not to sound drunk. When he was finally arrested hours after the accident his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. A sensational legal battle was about to begin.
Goodman hired famed high-powered Miami defense attorney Roy Black, whose previous clients include physician William Kennedy Smith [2], radio host Rush Limbaugh, and actor Kelsey Grammer, and who’s frequently appeared on TV as a legal commentator. He pleaded not guilty to the charges of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide. Then, in order to shield his considerable fortune from the civil lawsuits that would surely be filed by the Wilson family, he legally adopted his 42-year-old girlfriend in the fall of 2011. He immediately gave her a portion of the $300 million trust he had set up for his two biological children. A family scrabble was bound the ensue, and sure enough his two teenaged kids filed suit in February attempting the have the adoption thrown out so they could maintain sole beneficiaries of the fortune.

The Long Fall of John Goodman

Goodman's (top) and Wilson's (bottom) mangled cars

Once the trial began, Black presented the following defense. Earlier in the evening Goodman attended two events, the first at the White Horse Tavern and the second at the Players Club [3], where bar tabs show he ordered many rounds of vodka and tequila. According to the testimony of friends, including polo player Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras [4], he bought most of the drinks for others and was not intoxicated when he left the Players Club. Goodman then drove his car in search of a Wendy’s for a late night frosty. Approaching the intersection where the accident would occur, Goodman’s vehicle suddenly malfunctioned and despite his best efforts to stop the car it accelerated forward through the intersection. He then struck something, banging his head in the process. He didn’t know what he had hit and when he got out of his car to investigate he didn’t see another car or person. The accident had left him dazed and confused and his cell phone had died. So he wandered off in search of help and nursing an injured wrist and ribs. He soon saw a light down the road coming from an open barn door. He went inside in search of a phone, which he didn’t find but he did see a bottle of liquor. He drank from the bottle hoping the alcohol would alleviate his “excruciating [physical] pain”. Then he left the barn, spotted the light of a nearby trailer and called 9-1-1 using the owner’s phone. That was Black's explanation for the delay in calling 9-1-1 and the elevated blood-alcohol level.
On a believability scale with 1 representing the unvarnished as-God-is-my-witness recounting of events and 10 being a preposterously unbelievable fabrication, Goodman’s explanation of events rates at about a 13. The jury agreed and on March 23 of this year – more than two years after the accident – Goodman was found guilty of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide; he faces up to 30 years in prison [5]. Roy Black has claimed jury misconduct, but that charge has been rejected by the court, though further arguments on this point are set to be heard on April 30. Sentencing will likely occur in early May.
This is an engrossing story because if features a man of means, fame, and esteem; a tragic death; a pathetic, desperate 9-1-1 call; wild legal maneuverings in an attempt to shield a personal fortune from civil penalties; a high-profile trial featuring an outlandish yet audacious defense; and ultimately, a great fall from the top of life to a life in prison.
But this case’s sensational aspects distract us from the central fact. Here it is: Had Goodman killed Wilson by accident, because he was tired or it was foggy or any one of a hundred other reasons that did not involve alcohol or drugs he wouldn’t be going to prison. It would surely have cost him a huge sum of money from lawsuits and legal fees, but he could have afforded it (as it is he settled with Scott Wilson’s parents for $46 million). What no man can afford is lost time and lost freedom (Goodman is 48-years-old). The difference between a regrettable accident and a felony is a few drinks; a lapse in judgment. Goodman isn't guilty of some nefarious scam to cheat people out of their money or some premeditated plot to murder. He made a big mistake. It’s legal to drive [6] and it’s legal to drink [7], but it’s illegal to do both at the same time or be drunk behind the wheel. Ask yourself how many times you’ve driven when maybe you shouldn’t have [8]? You laugh it off and forget about it, but had you gotten into an accident, injured someone, or just been pulled over by police, it would be the furthest thing from funny. In the worst case [9], you’d be going to jail for a very long time just like John Goodman. Society says go out and have a good time, which quite frequently involves alcohol, but Society also says don’t drive drunk. These two rules are at odds with one another. Add to that the fact that alcohol impairs judgment and you get a lot of drunk driving. Drunk driving should never happen, it’s un-condonable [10], but nevertheless it happens all the time. Probably many thousands of times across the country every night people make the same mistake as John Goodman, and people will continue to make the same mistake. As interesting as the fall of John Goodman is, the real tragedy is the death of Scott Wilson, a story likely to be repeated--with far less sensation and hoopla--again and again.
[1] A big thanks to The Man for bringing this story, which is front page news down in his home area of South Florida, to my attention.
[2]Yes, one of those Kennedy’s.
[3]I’ll assume these are upscale establishments.
[4]Who was just recently featured in a segment of the show 60 Minutes.
[5]And one would think a really hard 30 years in prison where a man like Goodman wouldn’t fare so well.
[6]With a driver’s license.
[7]If you’re at least 21 years old.
[8]I’m taking the fifth on this question.
[9] Assuming of course you didn’t kill yourself along with another (or others).
[10] One could make a compelling argument that driving near the legal limit, say with a blood alcohol level around 0.08 is no more dangerous (which is not to say safe) than other types of "impaired" or distracted driving like driving when sleepy or when talking on the phone or to a passenger or worse still, texting. Obviously this argument doesn't hold as the level of intoxication increases.

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