A grueling three-year ordeal for Nathan Crowson’s family, and for Danny Morris and his family, came to an emotional end Wednesday when the Baton Rouge drunken driver convicted of killing Crowson and severely injuring Morris as they rode their bicycles on Perkins Road tearfully apologized to both families before a judge sentenced him to 7 ½ years in prison.
State District Judge Mike Erwin also ordered Joseph Branch, 31, to pay $295,000 in restitution as part of a sentence agreement.
Moments before Erwin imposed the sentence, Branch — who has been in custody since his October conviction for vehicular homicide and first-degree vehicular negligent injuring — turned and for the first time addressed both families, including Morris.
Branch cried as he explained that the crash “has killed me and eaten away at me.”
“I am sorry from the bottom of my heart,” he added. “It is not in me to hurt people.”
But one of Crowson’s brothers, Matthew Crowson, noted in court that Branch had a previous DWI conviction. In a victim impact statement before the sentencing, Matthew Crowson called Branch a silent killer and said, “Joseph Branch’s selfish and dangerous lifestyle has ruined my life.”
A choked-up Crowson said he no longer recognizes himself when he looks in the mirror because of his grief over the loss of Nathan, his “best friend.”
“I’m reduced to a walking, talking murder victim,” he told the judge.
Another brother, Loc Crowson, contrasted Nathan Crowson with Branch, calling his brother “an honest person who took responsibility for his actions” while describing Branch as a “spoiled child” who did not learn from his prior drunken driving transgression.
Outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse, Crowson’s weary but relieved mother, Rita Wise, said she has waited for more than three years to hear from her son’s killer.
“It helped,” she acknowledged. “I’d like to think he was sincere.”
Morris, who is now disabled with permanent nerve damage, had a decidedly different take on Branch’s apology, calling it too little, too late.
“A bit of an empty gesture. Seemed forced,” Morris told reporters. “He’s going to jail for a long time. That’s what he’s sad about.”
Morris’ mother, Debbie Morris McConnell, was willing to give Branch some benefit of the doubt, saying outside the downtown courthouse, “I don’t think he woke up that day with the intention of hurting someone.”
Nathan Crowson, 30, landed on the back of Branch’s car after the Jan. 21, 2012, crash near Quail Run Drive. Morris was knocked to the side.
“Did you know you hit him too?” McConnell asked Branch, referring to her son.
“Yes,” he replied while sitting at the defense table in an orange East Baton Rouge Parish Prison jumpsuit.
“Joseph, you changed a lot of lives that night with your carelessness,” McConnell said.
Rita Wise described her son as a “kind, gentle, unassuming man” who was a wonderful son, brother and father.
Wise noted she is a widow, then said, “There’s no word for the parent who loses a child.”
“The world lost a beautiful soul when we lost Nathan,” she added.
Adele Coburn, the mother of Nathan Crowson’s 8-year-old daughter, said Crowson “made being a parent look easy.” Then she offered a chilling statement.
“His biggest fear in life was to die young and leave her without a father,” Coburn told the judge.
Erwin told Branch he was lucky because, before both sides came to an agreement, he had planned to sentence him to 25 years in prison and make him serve 85 percent of that term.
Instead, the judge sentenced Branch to 25 years but suspended all but 7 ½ years of the sentence. Erwin said Branch must serve the first five years without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence.
Prosecutor Julie Cullen said Branch then must serve 85 percent of the remaining 2 ½ years.
Erwin said Branch will be on active supervised probation for five years after he is released from prison, and must use an ignition interlock device. Drivers must blow into the device to start their vehicles. If alcohol is detected, the vehicle will not start.
Branch had a blood alcohol level of 0.307 percent at the time of the 2012 crash. In Louisiana, a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher is considered to be driving drunk.
Branch was booked for his first DWI in 2006. His blood-alcohol level then was 0.241 percent, Baton Rouge City Court records indicate. He was given a 60-day suspended jail term for that DWI, but the term was reinstated three days after the 2012 crash. He then was allowed to post bond under the condition he go directly from jail to an inpatient treatment facility. He completed that treatment.
Cullen has said the 2012 crash occurred eight minutes after Branch left The Bulldog bar on Perkins Road. The bar reported Branch had three shots and several other alcoholic drinks in the two hours leading up to the accident.
Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr .