Crime

After deadly crash, recovering alcoholic’s remorse leads to shorter prison sentence

Antonio Lawrence, 57, convicted of the drunk-driving crash that killed two church leaders in Liberty City, cries in court Friday during his sentencing hearing.
Antonio Lawrence, 57, convicted of the drunk-driving crash that killed two church leaders in Liberty City, cries in court Friday during his sentencing hearing. David Ovalle

The day Antonio Lawrence drove drunk wound up ripping a community apart.

His truck demolished a venerable Liberty City soul-food restaurant called Jumbo’s, which later closed after more than 50 years in business. And he killed Wilton Harris and Aljo Hamlin, two church leaders who dined — and preached — there almost daily.

Despite the wrenching impact of the crash three years ago, Lawrence’s sentencing hearing Friday unfolded with little ill-will. Instead, relative after relative of Harris and Hamlin spoke of their agony, but also of forgiveness for a remorseful man who they said is working to help other alcoholics quit.

“God is a loving god,” Hamlin’s stepdaughter Anita Gray said. “If he can forgive you, we have to forgive you. I’m still angry but I don’t want to live like that.”

Kenia Fowler, 35, another stepdaughter, admitted the crash had forced her to face her own struggles with alcohol.

“I could have been you, but you helped me to stop,” Fowler said. “Thank you.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Diane Ward, moved by their words, did not sentence Lawrence to a potential maximum of 34 years in prison. Instead, she gave him 10 years, to be followed by a decade more of probation.

“Mr. Lawrence is in a position to change lives,” Ward said. “At least there will be something our community can salvage from this terrible tragedy.”

Lawrence, 57, cried throughout Friday’s sentencing for DUI manslaughter . “Everyday I live with the horrible decision I made to drink and drive,” he told their families. “I will accept the sentence … I pray my incarceration will bring additional peace to your family.”

In June 2012 Lawrence was behind the wheel of his truck with a blood-alcohol content level of .312 — nearly four times the legal limit. His truck plowed into Jumbo’s, 501 NW Seventh Ave, a Liberty City institution that owners said was the first white-owned establishment to serve and employ African Americans when it opened in 1955.

Harris, 61, a reverend at St. Barnabas Wesleyan Methodist Church, who hoped to one day start a homeless shelter, was killed. So was Hamlin, his longtime friend and a deacon at Greater Peace Missionary Baptist Church.

Since the accident, the restaurant has closed. A longtime alcoholic, Lawrence got sober while out on bond and began helping others substance abusers, said his lawyer, Julia Seifer-Smith.

“Over the last two to three years, he has been attempting to make amends for the devastation he caused over the last 30 years,” Seifer-Smith said.

Lawrence surrendered in February to begin serving jail time, even though his case remained open. Twenty relatives of the dead men attended Friday’s hearing, some wearing T-shirts with their photos on them.

“There is a lot of courage in this room. There is a lot of love in this room,” prosecutor Marie Mato said. “There is a lot of forgiveness in this room, which is very very rare in this courthouse.”

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