Even the judge was perplexed.
Circuit Judge Chris France had already heard Joshua Carver’s statement of regret about hitting 29-year-old Jonathan Rogers with his truck and driving on. Rogers had been walking on the side of State Road 100 in West Flagler an afternoon in February 2020. The collision killed him. Carver, 35, claimed he’d not realized he’d struck a man, that he thought he’d struck objects tumbling from a truck in front of him. A jury in late September didn’t believe him, taking just 30 minutes to find him guilty of hit and run with a death, a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
France this afternoon had to sentence him. But he’d just heard and read testimony from 13 family members and friends of Carver’s, each as eloquent as it was heartbreaking, none lacking in sincerity or seeming canned. By zoom or in person, the family members and friends, including an ex-brother in law, Carver’s sisters, childhood friends, all collectively drew the portrait of a humble and honest man who’d never been in trouble with the law, who’d struggled through a childhood of challenges from poverty to his mother’s mental illness, to his father’s suicide four months before the collision everyone referred to as “the accident.” And they described a man was the doting father to a boy who turns 8 next May, and who, all agreed–even Jonathan’s mother along with Jonathan’s best friend, who testified at length and in tears–would end up suffering most from his father’s absence in prison.
France had also heard from Teresa Meggs, Jonathan’s mother, who was herself perplexed, empathizing with the traumas Carver and his family had suffered. She was not interested in vengefulness. But as she thought of her own lost son, she kept wondering: “You know, I would miss him just as much if Mr. Carver had stopped that day. But I just can’t understand why he didn’t stop. How could he just keep going? And then lying, after lie, after lie, about fenceposts and a chair.” (Carver had claimed that the truck in front of him had dropped either fenceposts or a chair, and that he’d struck the objects.) “Everything but that he hit my son. I just don’t get it. I hear so much positive things about him to where it would make me think, how could this man hit another human being and then just keep driving in hopes that he can evade any prosecution or any trouble. I just don’t understand that for the life of me.”
If there was a divide between the two families, it was not defined by any discernible enmity so much as mutual loss.
Carver himself, his family members and friends, and especially his oldest sister, with whom he’d lived the 19 months since the fatal crash, had described him as a man demolished by the death of Jonathan Rogers. “I have seen him cry over the loss of Jonathan,” his sister said. “Josh has a young son and has had nightmares that that’s happening to him. He’s been unable to sleep much at all during these long months, his blood pressure has been out of control. He’s broken down in tears many times wondering how he could not have known what happened.”
France couldn’t understand, either. So after all the testimony was done and both attorneys had presented their arguments–Assistant Public Defender Bill Bookhammer and Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis, whose prosecutorial hyperboles at trial by this afternoon had given way to a semblance of sympathy for Carver–the judge turned to Carver, asking him again to speak on his behalf.
“Mr. Carver, is there anything more you’d like to say as to the circumstances of the crime?”
Carver had no reason to know–no point of reference to know–that the judge was throwing him a lifeline, that judges don’t usually give defendants the equivalent of an open mic a second time, notably this judge, who is not known for magnanimity in the courtroom. So Carver could be excused for the clumsy way–the almost patronizing way–his first words came off to France: “If I didn’t make it clear in my statement, I’m very remorseful for for everything that happened.”
France tried again. More specifically, if you talked to your lawyer about how or whether you answered the question as to leaving.” Bookhammer moments earlier had argued that Carver was not being sentenced for killing Rogers. He was being sentenced for laving the scene. Lewis called it “splitting hairs,” but Bookhammer wasn’t: his argument was part of a concisely reasoned question revolving around the “three principles of sentencing,” and about what the court was seeking: retribution? Deterrence? Incapacitation, which is reserved for the incorrigible?
“You know, there’s some people that the court could sentence to one day in jail, and that person will never go back to jail. That’d be it. That’s all they need,” Bookhammer said. “And he’s one of those people. Whether you sentence him to one year, three years, five years, 20 years you’re never going to see him come back.”
By then it was obvious that the judge was not going to impose anything near the 30-year sentence. No one wanted it, least of all Jonathan Rogers’s mother, who had agreed to five years in prison. Lewis had asked her, after she had heard the testimonies from Carver’s side of the courtroom, if she wanted to stick with that. (She was zooming in from Virginia. She had attended the trial in person.) “Do you still feel like that’s appropriate after listening to everything from today?” Lewis asked, as if giving Meggs a chance to lower the sentence. She paused. Twelve full seconds of dead silence in the courtroom.
Then: “Yes,” Meggs said simply.
It was from that perspective that France was giving Carver another chance to explain. So Carver did: “I am responsible for my actions. I was there that day. And I am remorseful. Not because I’m being charged with it because it wasn’t the right thing to do. I just can’t say I’m sorry enough.” He paused. It had been his clearest statement–his only statement–of admission, not to have done something he wasn’t aware of having done, but to having knowingly struck Jonathan Rogers, and left the scene. He continued, confirming what he’d just said. “I was wrong. The family didn’t deserve that. And the young man certainly didn’t deserve that. It makes no difference if he died immediately or not. I should have stopped and render aid.”
Carver may very well not have known that he’d struck Jonathan that day, as he claimed to a Florida Highway Patrol trooper. He may well have convinced himself that he couldn’t possibly have struck him, that he–Joshua Carver, the paragon of virtue and selflessness his family and friends had just portrayed–couldn’t have done such a thing. Just as conceivably, in court today his confession may well have been not to the judge so much as to himself, as if he were living up to the image his friends and family had draw of him: a man who ultimately could not lie, even if it cost him an additional year or two in prison. If he hadn’t done the right thing that February afternoon, he was doing it now, and in that moment restoring his sense of himself before the court, or before his son’s eyes, years from now.
His lawyer had argued for a “downward departure,” meaning less than the minimum-mandatory four years in prison. He’d argued for 34 months or less in prison, and no probation. He’d also asked the court to defer the imposition of $29,000 in restitution, the cost of Jonathan’s funeral. But Carver had left France no choice. “I’ve heard the same case, heard the same evidence as the jury,” France told Carver, who stood in front of him at the lectern, next to Bookhammer, in his orange jail suit, wrists and legs in chains, “and I do believe that for whatever reason, you knew you hit somebody and you left, I mean you just said that now. We don’t need to belabor that.”
France then imposed sentence: five years in prison, five years on probation, without special condition, so it’s the least onerous form of probation there is. Carver’s driver’s license will be suspended for five years. It could have been revoked for life. He is also required to pay the $29,000 in restitution. He will be eligible for gain time, so between that and the few weeks of jail he’s already served, his sentence will amount to just under four years. His son will be entering his teens when he is released. But the family and the court have no say as to which part of its gulag the Florida prison system will send him. The system does not take families’ geography into account, whether children are involved or not. He could en dup in South Florida or the Panhandle, or end up an hour away.
Before pronouncing sentence, France acknowledged the way both families had spoken during the 90-minute hearing. “I’d like to thank, if that’s appropriate, the families and witnesses on both sides who testified. All of us have been exposed to the these types of hearings, and very rarely do we see the dignity that’s been afforded to all sides. Especially the wishes and condolences from the witnesses speaking on behalf of the defendant, Mr. Carver. These were clearly sincere wishes. They were certainly not passed along for any gain today. And I appreciate it as far as conducting this proceeding.”
C’mon man says
I think the 5 year sentence followed by probation is fair. Judge France honored the families wishes and still imposed the mandatory sentence at the same time.
Closure for both families who can eventually move on with their lives.
That’s it ?
WOW, a light sentence. I guess crime rates will rise. Was the victim a person of color? The sentence leave me to believe the the victim was a person of color.
He was not a person of color.
A Mans life is worth more than 5 years. We really no longer value human life..