Joseph McGowan now knows that he left the scene of a fatal accident on Interstate 595, but after hearing his painfully emotional testimony on Friday, even the victim's family hugged him and told him they hope he can move on from the tragedy.
Earlier this year, a jury found McGowan, 24, of Plantation, guilty of leaving the scene of an accident on westbound I-595 that resulted in the death of Maebell Johnson, 62, of Fort Lauderdale. The woman, who had dementia, was struck by at least two vehicles while she was trying to pick up cans in the middle lanes of the highway at 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2010.
On Friday, Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Levenson said that it was a tragedy for both families, but the particular facts of the case meant McGowan did not deserve to go to prison. He could have faced anything from probation to 30 years of incarceration.
The judge sentenced him to two years of house arrest, eight years of probation, and 400 hours of community service. The judge also ordered him to write a detailed letter of apology to the victim's family, revoked his driver's license and said that 120 of the community service hours must be done in a trauma unit or hospital emergency room.
In court on Friday, McGowan spoke publicly for the first time about the accident in testimony that was so obviously heartfelt that the victim's family and some veteran courthouse employees wiped tears from their eyes.
"I know that nothing I can ever do will change your loss, and there are no words that can express what each of you is going through," McGowan said, pausing frequently between quiet sobs. "To know that I can never help your mother or bring her back or alleviate the pain you feel hurts me even deeper."
"If I knew what I had done, I would have … rather it been me on the highway than your mother," he said haltingly and looking directly to the victim's relatives.
He told the judge he knew that nothing could restore the victim's life but begged for the opportunity to "continue to be part of society and at least help those that I still can."
After McGowan was pronounced a convicted felon and the sentencing hearing ended, the victim's adult children embraced him, spoke words of forgiveness and said they would pray for him.
"You're a good man and I know that," the victim's son, Robert Johnson, told McGowan.
"God bless you," the victim's daughter, Trina Johnson-Pettiford, whispered as she hugged McGowan tightly.
"We have nothing against him whatsoever; it could have happened to anybody," Robert Johnson told McGowan's mother, Kris, who is a hospital nurse.
The case gripped many South Florida residents who wrote that they felt sorry for the victim but also empathized with the young man who happened upon something unexpected — a pedestrian standing in the middle of a busy highway in the dark early morning hours.
About 25 people showed up in court to support McGowan and more than three dozen people, including some complete strangers who had only read newspaper accounts of the case, wrote to the judge urging leniency.
Several of the letter writers told the judge that they frequently travel that section of highway, just west of the Interstate 95 exits, where Johnson was struck and could put themselves in McGowan's shoes.
The strangers who wrote to the judge said they felt sorry for the victim and her family but also felt compassion for McGowan.
"It is a tragedy that this woman was killed by accident. But it would also be a tragedy if this young man was put in prison," wrote Thomas and Deborah Maleta, of Fort Lauderdale, who have a teenage daughter and said they felt compelled to write after reading about the case.
"This situation could have happened to anyone, and many good, honest people could have easily done the same thing that Joseph McGowan did, and I'm not saying what he did was right," another stranger, Susan Kelly, of Plantation, wrote to the judge. "I do not believe that going to prison will do Joseph McGowan any good, and it could do him harm."
Prosecution experts testified Johnson was struck by McGowan's gray Dodge Caravan and a tractor-trailer and it was impossible to tell which impact killed her.
McGowan's defense attorney, Robert Buschel, argued in trial that Johnson was struck first by another vehicle, the driver of which was never found though a road ranger who witnessed the accident testified that Johnson was hit by a small white car. An unidentified 911 caller also reported that a person was struck by a small white car, though prosecutor Sasha Shulman attacked that evidence saying the call came more than an hour after Johnson was hit.