After more than a decade of abusing drugs and booze, Haywood Maurice Johnson had put together an impressive stretch of nearly four years sober.
But his recovery was cut short in a terrible twist of fate. While walking to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a drunk driver plowed into the 49-year-old Miami man, hurling his body 25 feet onto the pavement and killing him.
On Friday, Johnson’s relatives nevertheless blessed a plea deal that sent driver Carlos Padron, 39, to prison for five years.
“I don’t quite understand why this happened but I do believe it’s divine intervention,” one of Johnson’s sisters, Angelica Green-Johnson, said during a heart-wrenching sentencing. “My brother had to change his life, and I think his life is being used to change Mr. Padron’s life.”
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At the time of the 2013 crash, Padron himself was a chronic drunk whose blood alcohol content level was a staggering .335 — more than four times the legal limit. Padron surrendered Friday to begin serving his sentence, now nearly two years sober himself as part of the same recovery program attended by Johnson.
Even Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Victoria Brennan remarked on the unlikely circumstances.
“The irony is hard to get your head around,” she said. “It’s so sad, but by his death he has served someone else.”
For the lawyers and judge, as in many DUI manslaughter cases, figuring out the appropriate sentence was tricky. A Miami Herald analysis published this week found that sentences for DUI manslaughter can vary wildly across the state, affected by a host of factors, including the desires of the next of kin, the media glare, the strength of the evidence and the mind-set of individual judges.
In more than 400 fatality cases resolved in Florida since 2012, the statewide average sentence for DUI manslaughter is just under 10 years behind bars, according to a Herald analysis of prison records. Miami-Dade, the county with by far the most cases, averaged just over 6 years in prison.
The minimum mandatory sentence for DUI manslaughter is four years behind bars. Padron faced up to 15 years in prison. But he had no criminal history and never fled the scene of the crash, cooperating with investigators.
He also suffered from a host of mental-health issues as a young man, and abused alcohol for two decades. Months before the crash, the warehouse employee suffered a heart attack.
With the staggeringly high blood alcohol level, the only real defense at trial would have been to shift some blame to Johnson because he was not crossing the street at a crosswalk, although he was hit just a few feet from the curb.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s relatives — after lengthy talks with Miami-Dade prosecutor Jessie Friedman and when questioned by the judge — did not want a trial or more prison time.
“I love my brother and I miss him so much. I must forgive you according to my faith in God,” said Johnson’s sister Cheryl. “My family hopes that his death will result in something positive.”
Padron will also serve 10 years of probation and can never drive again.
“I think the judge, the victims and the lawyers think that this is the appropriate amount of time for an automobile crash,” said defense attorney Michael Catalano.
Friday’s plea deal was tearful, and Padron showed no hesitation in accepting his prison time.
“I never thought that something like this would happen. I thank you for the forgiveness but I can’t forgive myself,” Padron said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t remember this life-changing incident. I hope that I can continue in this road of recovery and I hope I can help so the same thing doesn’t happen to others.”
Padron’s mother, her eyes filled with tears, apologized to Johnson’s sisters, who proudly showed her a poster featuring photos of their smiling brother, one in a colorful vest, another in a shirt with the logo of his beloved Miami Dolphins.
Johnson lived for years at the Camilus House, the venerated Overtown shelter, helping others wracked by substance abuse and homelessness. A renewed Baptist, he worked odd jobs sweeping floors at beauty salons, but finally returned to Miami Dade College hoping to study business administration.
On a September night in 2013, Johnson visited his elderly wheelchair-bound mother, raked the yard, ate dinner with her and then hopped on a bus bound for another Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
He never made it. As he walked across Northwest Seventh Avenue at 20th Street in Miami, Padron plowed his Ford Focus into Johnson. He died one month shy of completing four years of sobriety.
The case was steeped in ironies. His sister Angelica Green-Johnson works as a nurse’s aide at Jackson Memorial Hospital and had to walk over during her shift to identify her brother’s body. She is also studying mortuary science, and one of her first tasks was to assist dressing her own brother for his funeral.
“It’s one thing to do it for a stranger you don’t know, but to do it for a loved one is an experience you’ll never forget,” she said.
Johnson’s sobriety was a point of pride on Friday. Family recalled how he refused to be around beer at a family party.
The main reason he finally stayed sober, his sisters believe, was his love for his 77-year-old mother. He was her only boy. After her battle with cancer and a recent gallbladder surgery, she pleaded with him to stop quit drinking.
“He had disappointed her for so many years” Green-Johnson said. “But then he was clean and she was proud.”