SARASOTA — Former Braden River High School football coach Joshua Hunter will spend more than 10 years in prison for the drunken driving death last year of one of his best friends.
Hunter, 33, stared straight ahead as Circuit Judge Donna Berlin announced his punishment Friday, following an almost four-hour sentencing hearing at the Sarasota courthouse. Inside the courtroom gallery, friends and family members including his parents and his wife, Anne, bowed their heads and wept.
On May 17, a jury found Hunter guilty of DUI manslaughter for driving his truck off the County Road 681 on-ramp to Interstate 75 and causing it to overturn, ejecting his close friend and assistant coach Doug Garrity from the vehicle. Garrity was killed in the crash. Blood tests later showed Hunter had a blood-alcohol level of .21, nearly three times the legal limit in Florida of .08.
Moments earlier, Josh Hunter spoke publicly for the first time since the fatal crash and admitted he was driving the night they left another football coach’s home in Nokomis.
“I stand before this court today a man that has experienced so many feelings and emotions over the past year,” Hunter read from a prepared letter. “I’ve felt the lowest of lows. Feelings of sorrow and remorse. I carry the sorrow for Doug’s loss every day in my heart. I am sorry.
“Doug was not merely someone that I worked with. He was also one of my best friends, in essence a second brother to me. There is not anything I would not do to bring him back.”
Hunter, jailed since his conviction, faced between four and 15 years in prison.
During the trial, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper testified that a passenger in the truck, Matt Braselton, identified Hunter as the driver on the night of the crash. But Braselton testified he couldn’t remember who was driving.
Hunter’s brother, James, also a passenger in the truck, refused to testify that his brother had been driving, which forced prosecutors to rely on the trooper’s testimony.
James Hunter, 39, was jailed almost two months ago for criminal contempt of court after refusing to testify at trial. He was slated to be sentenced on a separate civil contempt charge for refusing to speak to prosecutors prior to the trial.
In his final words to the court, Josh Hunter pleaded for the judge to release his brother.
“Allow my brother to come home and, if not for anything else, so I can rest easy and know that my parents and my loved ones will not be alone in my presumed absence,” Hunter said, then broke into tears.
After Hunter was sentenced to prison Friday, Berlin suspended James Hunter’s jail sentence and placed him on probation.
Maximum sentence sought
Assistant State Attorney Art Jackman had asked Berlin to sentence Josh Hunter to 12 years in prison.
“You don’t get a pass if you happen to kill a friend or a loved one,” Jackman said. “There’s consequences for his actions. And even though he had every opportunity to take full responsibility for his actions and prevent that from happening, he preferred to see his brother go to jail.”
Hunter’s attorney Brett McIntosh had asked the judge to give his client the minimum mandatory sentence of four years for reasons including that fact he had shown remorse.
“He’s repeatedly told people he wishes he would have been the one who died,” McIntosh said.
Psychologist Eddie Regnier testified he began seeing Hunter in May after Hunter’s wife told him she was concerned about his deepening depression.
“He didn’t want to leave the house, wasn’t shaving,” Regnier testified. “My therapy with Josh Hunter was to give him a reason to live. He would not accept that he suffered from depression or anxiety disorder that led to massive drinking.”
John Garrity, the victim’s father, pleaded with the judge to have mercy on Hunter.
“If Douglas was standing here, he would tell you he would not want to see anything happen to his closest friend Josh,” he said. “But as I see it there were three other people in that car that could have refused a ride that night.”
His son, he said, made a poor decision in not wearing a seat belt. Had he worn it, John Garrity added, Hunter would likely not have been charged with DUI manslaughter.
Students speak for Hunter
Former Braden River High School student Heather Koch broke into tears after calling Hunter a compassionate man who had an impact on thousands of students.
Hunter, who sat behind her at the defendant’s table in an orange Sarasota County jail uniform, held his head down as Koch started to cry.
Adam Butler, another former student who later coached with Hunter at Braden River High, called Hunter his role model.
“Coach, you’ve taught me how to be a man and chase the big dream … and most of all be a good person,” Butler read from a letter he wrote.
Jennifer Fury, a friend who works with Hunter’s wife, reminded the judge that people know drunk driving kills.
“What people don’t understand is that can happen to them,” Fury said. “Sentences don’t send messages. Human beings send messages. Place him back in the community to speak at MADD events and schools to show people that you and me and everybody else on the streets can be where he is.”
The packed courtroom audience watched video slides of photos that included Hunter, his family and friends. He cried when photos of him and his wife flashed onto a screen in front of the courtroom.
In the end, Berlin sentenced Hunter to 124.5 months in prison and revoked his driver’s license for life.
When Hunter is released from prison, he must also participate in 55 months of probation, including serving two hours of public service each month to raise awareness among youth about the consequences of drinking and driving.
Natalie Neysa Alund, reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7095.