Update: see related post – March 29, 2016 Ontario: Convicted Impaired Driver, Marco Michael Muzzo, Sentenced To 9 Years & 4 Months
Jesse Taylor also gets concurrent 18-month sentence for causing bodily harm
When Cody Johnson woke up from a coma after surviving a drunk-driving crash near Moose Jaw, Sask., he discovered three of his friends were dead and he couldn’t walk or talk.
Two and a half years later, he lives in a rehabilitation home for people with brain injuries.
Johnson’s entire life has changed since September 2013, but one thing remains the same: he doesn’t blame the drunk driver — his friend Jesse Taylor.
“It could have been me driving. I could be doing the time. I could have killed my friends,” Johnson, 28, told CBC News.
Drunk driver faces prison time
At the end of March, Taylor, 24, pleaded guilty to driving with a blood alcohol level over .08 and causing the deaths of three young fathers — Josh Patterson, Jason Friesen and Justin Kowalski, all 24 at the time — and causing bodily harm to Johnson.
Only Taylor and another back-seat passenger were wearing seatbelts. They escaped with minor cuts and bruises.
The Crown and defence lawyers made a joint proposal for a four-year prison sentence. On Tuesday morning, Taylor was sentenced to four years in prison, as well as an 18-month concurrent sentence for causing bodily harm.
Families divided over sentencing
The families of the six friends were torn over how strict a sentence Taylor deserved. Some submitted victim impact statements, while others wrote letters of support for Taylor.
Friesen’s parents, Ken and Melonie Karmarznuk, accept that their son chose to get into the vehicle with a drunk driver and didn’t wear a seatbelt, but said it should not excuse Taylor from serving time in prison.
“I do not hate Jesse Taylor,” Melonie Karmarznuk told CBC News. “[But] we have all known since the day we got our licence, ‘You play, you pay.'”
The family said after the sentencing they were “disappointed” but unsure what “justice” they wanted.
“We wanted him to pay, but … we don’t want to ruin the kid’s life. An accident is an accident, it wasn’t on purpose,” said Ken Karmarznuk. “But, I don’t know, it’s just tough. It’s just tough waking up every day.”
In his victim impact statement, Patterson’s father said he wanted Taylor to receive the steepest punishment available for the crime, saying one day Taylor would be able to continue his life while his son and family cannot.
“I cannot help but feel that Josh was given a death sentence and I was given a life sentence,” he wrote.
Johnson disagrees that time behind bars is necessary. “Knowing you killed three of your friends. Whoa. In my mind, that’s enough jail time right there.”
Senior Crown prosecutor Curtis Wiebe was asked after sentencing how the families’ varying opinions factor into the sentencing submission.
“Some people may view this as being an accident, and that he should get no time. Others may feel that he should get life imprisonment. So you’ve got quite a range,” he said. “We certainly talk to the victims, but we also want to look at what the case law says and submit it as a proportionate sentence.”
Booze, drugs and driving
Johnson and his five buddies liked to work hard and play harder. On Sept. 15, 2013, they decided to spend the day fishing and drinking beer. As it often did, the partying stretched into the evening and the young men added some cocaine to the mix.
Johnson said they had all been willing to drive impaired in the past, and that day was no different.
“By the end of the night, all six of us were arguing over who was going to drive home,” Johnson remembers. “For whatever reason, Jesse [Taylor] decided he would drive.”
Johnson said he was sitting on his friend’s lap in the front seat of the truck. The two started arguing over which radio station to listen to and that’s when Taylor looked over at them and lost control, he said.
The truck flipped and rolled down a steep embankment on Highway 2. Johnson flew out the window and landed in a barbed wire fence 30 metres away.
Johnson’s mother, Lisa, rushed to her son’s bedside in Regina General Hospital intensive care unit after the crash. Doctors told her that even if Cody survived, his brain had been seriously damaged in the crash.
The doctors didn’t think he’d make it out of the coma. “And if he did, he’d be a vegetable the rest of his life,” Lisa said. “They all questioned me if I wanted Cody to live like that … their advice was to let him go.”
Taylor arrived at the hospital to join her at Cody’s bedside.
“He was very quiet. But he still had the courage to tell me what happened and he apologized,” Lisa said.
She didn’t know whether her son would survive, but said she never felt anger toward Taylor.
“They were all adult men who chose to put themselves in that position. I never have, and never will, have resentment towards Jesse [Taylor] for that.”
Lisa would have preferred to see Taylor perform community service rather than spend time in prison.
Cody woke up from the coma after two months, unable to feed himself, walk or talk. He spent another three months in hospital back home in B.C. before transferring to a rehab community in Nanaimo for brain injury patients.
“It all got shook up so bad, it all got hurt,” he said about his brain. ”
[The doctors] never thought I’d make it this far.”
He spent months undergoing painful physical therapy and arduous speech therapy. Even when he could form clear thoughts, he couldn’t get his lips to form the words.
“Some days I would just freak out and just start punching things,” he said.
Johnson has quit drinking, smoking and doing drugs. He does yoga. His goal is to move out of the rehab home, share his story with school children, and find work doing “something simple.”
Like many people coping with a brain injury, he needs to keep things simple to avoid confusion or stress.
That’s why he’s chosen a simple message to share: Don’t drink and drive.