I had to let this one stew in my head a bit before I commented, and I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it. Last Friday word came down on the sentencing of former Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent, for his recent conviction of intoxication manslaughter of his friend and former Cowboys and University of Illinois teammate Jerry Brown. In case you’ve been under a non-sports rock the last year or so, in December of 2012 Brent and Brown climbed into Brent’s Mercedes after a night of drinking with teammates. Brent lost control of his car while driving as fast as 110 mph according to prosecutors, and Brown was killed. Blood tests recorded Brent’s blood alcohol content at 0.18 percent, more than twice the state’s legal limit to drive of 0.08 percent. Prosecutors told jurors that the lineman had as many as 17 drinks on the night of the crash. He had no driver’s license or insurance. His sentence – 180 days in jail, 10 years probation and a $10,000 fine. He could have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. That’s quite a difference.
I understand that Jerry Brown most likely willingly hopped into Brent’s car, probably knowing full well his friend was intoxicated, and neither man chose to wear his seat belt according to reports. It was a terrible accident yes, but an accident that could of, and should have been prevented. The Cowboys and the NFL both offer free driver service to any player who just dials the number. Brent (and Brown) chose not to. But this was not Brent’s first time getting caught behind the wheel intoxicated.
In Illinois in 2009 Brent was also convicted of drunk driving and spent 30 days in jail, which is when he lost his license. Then while awaiting his recent trial and on parole last June, Brent tested positive for marijuana, a violation of his parole terms at the time. But no jail time. In fact, that was the second time prosecutors had tried to have Brent jailed due to a violation of his parole. The Cowboys lineman had also appeared in court last May, when Dallas County assistant district attorney Heath Harris alleged Brent had 22 parole violations in the six previous months, according to Greg Magnus of NFL.com. The judge did not revoke Brent’s bond, but did force him to wear a second monitoring device (after Brent had tampered with his first one). Harris said at the time, “We expect for our repeat alcohol offenders to have strict compliance with their bond requirements. One of the problems we had was he was supposed to register data with us and didn’t. And that was the real problem. He refuses to comply with the rules. Clearly, alcohol was present, but we couldn’t prove if he did drink or didn’t.”
By all accounts Josh Brent is a good guy and good teammate. In fact, Jerry Brown’s mother’s testimony asking forgiveness to her son’s friend may have had a significant impact on the jury that was responsible for his sentencing. Brown’s mother, Stacey Jackson, wasn’t in the courtroom when the verdict was read. But she publicly forgave Brent, and said during Thursday’s sentencing proceedings: “He’s still responsible, but you can’t go on in life holding a grudge. We all make mistakes.” Jackson was the last witness the jury heard, and Harris said her testimony probably helped Brent get probation.
So here’s my dilemma with this whole tragedy of a situation. I have no doubt about the guilt that Brent must surely be feeling for killing his friend and that it will haunt him for life. He made a mistake, a fatal one albeit, and he certainly will never fully recover or shed the demons that must haunt him every waking hour. On top of that I have a hard time asking for a second life to be wasted due to that fateful night. But here’s where I have trouble forgiving him as easily as the jurors seemed to do – his past behavior paints the picture of an individual who doesn’t believe the rules of society apply to him – repeatedly – or grasps the idea that for his actions there are consequences. And to me that also paints a picture of another accident waiting to happen. As D.A. Harris said, “Given the defendant’s prior alcohol-related contacts and the severity of the charge in this case, it is the State’s belief that the defendant continues to pose a threat to the community.” “We never quarrel with a jury’s decision,” added Harris. “All we can hope and pray is that I believe the jury saw something salvageable in him … and he does get some help.”
There are of course the reactions from those who were shocked by the leniency afforded by the jury members. The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose headquarters isn’t far from the spot where Brent crashed, said in a statement that it was “shocked and appalled” by the athlete’s sentence. “This punishment sends the message that it’s OK to drink and drive.”
I’m not concerned whether Brent will resume his career with the Cowboys, as many Cowboys fans seem to be. He’s only 25 (his 26th birthday is tomorrow) and depending on suspensions by the NFL he absolutely could be playing next season. That decision will ultimately be made by the NFL and the Cowboys (or another team). As NFL spokesman Greg Aiello write in an email Friday “This is an issue we will deal with down the road.”
No, my concern is for his safety and the safety of any other driver or pedestrian when he’s set free after his 180 days. It’s a tragic story that my gut tells isn’t finished. I hope it ends well for Brent and all those concerned, but if I was a betting man I wouldn’t put my money on the proverbial happy ending. Not at least until Brent shows a modification to past behavior. A significant one.