Earlier this month, the State of Florida Clemency Board heard testimony aimed to compel members to reduce a 10-year sentence given to a local football coach who accidentally killed his best friend in a drunk driving accident. In following the case, I've found that it raises a valid moral question that we don't seem completely comfortable addressing. Should a willing (and equally inebriated) passenger in a DUI crash be viewed the same as other victims under the law?
The reflexive answer is that DUI is always wrong, always dangerous and irresponsible and that any person who chooses to do it is accountable for the consequences. I don't think any reasonable person would argue that, and you can say the same thing about texting while driving. That being said, I don't know one person (myself included) who has not made one or both mistakes in judgment. In that sense, the chief difference between those who are incarcerated for causing someone's death by way of such a mistake and the rest of us is nothing more than luck.
Doug Garrity, a Braden River High assistant football coach, died five years ago this month, when a pickup truck driven by head coach Josh Hunter flipped over while making a turn. Garrity, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle and died. The four passengers of the truck had been drinking heavily at a party in Venice and were on their way home when the fatal, single-vehicle crash occurred.
At this month's hearing, Garrity's parents were among those giving testimony, telling the board that they believe that 10-year prison sentence Hunter received is unjust, a position they've maintained since his trial. It should be noted that Garrity and Hunter were not only coaches on the same team, but best friends who socialized regularly.
There were a lot of particular circumstances in the long and convoluted trial, including the surviving two passengers' refusal to testify that Hunter was in fact the driver of the vehicle. One of them, Hunter's brother James, was even jailed for a period because he wouldn't testify as to whether his brother was driving at the time of the crash. Hunter was ultimately convicted and is currently serving a 10-year sentence.
I'm less interested in discussing the particulars of Hunter's case than the broader premise that someone in Garrity's position would be viewed the same as a sober driver, or pedestrian who is struck by a drunken driver. Such a view discounts any personal responsibility a person in that situation has for getting into a car with someone they know to be inebriated. Inherently, that gives them a choice to remove themselves from a dangerous situation – a choice that the victim in the other scenario wouldn't have had.
In many cases, someone who is party to a DUI as a passenger is riding in that vehicle because someone else was willing to take the risk of arrest should they be pulled over. Let's imagine two friends are drinking at a bar, matching each other drink for drink only to flip a coin over who drives home when neither one of them chooses to do the right thing and call a cab. How much responsibility should the driver have – not to every other person on the road – but to the other person with them, who was arguably equally responsible for the poor decision?
I'm not trying to alleviate the responsibility for a dangerous and deadly act or saying that Hunter should not have done jail time. I'm also open to the idea that someone riding as a passenger in a vehicle in which they know the driver is inebriated, should at least be charged with reckless endangerment, if not made an accessory to any ensuing crime. This would also seem likely to reduce instances of drinking and driving, as potential passengers might be motivated by such accountability to argue in favor of a cab, rather than roll the dice in letting someone else drive drunk. But to view them as an equal victim seems counterintuitive.
If I were to leave a pub and get into the car with someone I knew to be intoxicated, I would not expect to be protected in the same way as had I been soberly driving (or walking) down the road and been struck by a drunken driver. If my child made the mistake of doing the same thing, I would surely mourn their loss the same way that I would had I lost them in the latter scenario, but I would also like to think I would be strong enough to see that they had control over the situation and made a choice that ultimately ended in tragedy, and that they were ultimately responsible for what happened just as much as the person who was driving.
To the credit of Doug Garrity's parents, they seem to have been able to maintain an honest perspective, despite the torturous heartache and loss that they have surely endured. The clemency board, which is made up of the governor's cabinet and typically makes a decision the day of the hearing, has taken Hunter's case under advisement, giving them more time to consider whether to issue a rare reduction in his sentence. Whatever they decide, I think the case raises a bigger question that we as a society need to confront.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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