Jurors deliberated for just an hour Friday before finding Joseph Branch guilty of killing one bicyclist and seriously injuring another rider on Perkins Road in 2012 while driving drunk.
State District Judge Mike Erwin immediately remanded Branch to the custody of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and scheduled his sentencing for Dec. 17 — the birthday of avid bicyclist Nathan Crowson’s mother, Rita Wise. Her 30-year-old son died in the crash.
“So grateful. So relieved. It’s icing on the cake because he hasn’t spent a day in jail,” Wise said from her wheelchair outside Erwin’s courtroom.
“It’s not going to give us our boy back, but it’s some justice for him and Danny,” she added, referring to Danny Morris, the cyclist who was riding with Crowson the night of Jan. 21, 2012, when a heavily intoxicated Branch rear-ended the cyclists.
“We’re very excited and happy with the verdict,” said Morris, who now walks with a limp and carries a cane. “Justice has been served. I can finally put it behind me.”
Branch, 30, who was found guilty of both vehicular homicide and first-degree vehicular negligent injuring, faces a prison term of five to 30 years on the homicide charge.
When asked what sentence Branch deserves, Wise quickly replied, “Thirty-five.”
“He deserves the full extent,” added Loc Crowson, one of Nathan’s brothers. “He spent 21/2 years avoiding responsibility and dragging Nathan’s and Danny’s names through the mud.”
Trial testimony indicated marijuana was detected in the bodies of the cyclists after the crash, and candy tablets found in Nathan Crowson’s pants pocket tested positive for LSD.
Police also testified Branch had a blood-alcohol level of 0.307 percent at the time of the crash. In Louisiana, a driver with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher is considered to be driving drunk.
Branch’s lead attorney, DeVan Pardue, said “the jury spoke” but added that an appeal will be filed.
In her closing argument to the jury earlier Friday, prosecutor Julie Cullen said it was Branch’s actions, and his intoxication, that caused Crowson’s death and the severe injuries to Morris, who underwent no less than seven surgeries while hospitalized for nearly a month. More surgeries would follow.
“That’s what happens when people drive drunk. They cause tragedies,” she told the East Baton Rouge Parish panel of four women and two men.
Cullen replayed a police video of Branch at the crash scene near the intersection of Perkins Road and Quail Run Drive, in which an officer asked an intoxicated Branch if he had consumed any shots of liquor.
“I can’t drink shots and drive,” Branch answered. The Bulldog bar on Perkins reported he had three shots and several other alcoholic drinks in the two hours leading up to the crash.
Cullen argued Branch was so drunk he didn’t even know what time it was. Even though the crash occurred about 8:44 p.m., Branch told the officer he left the bar at 10:30 or 11 p.m.
The crash occurred eight minutes after Branch left the bar, she said.
Pardue pleaded with jurors to use their common sense, pointing out that Crowson and Morris, dressed in dark clothing, were riding at night on a four-lane roadway on poorly lit bikes.
“What reasonable person would have been able to stop quick enough?” he asked in his closing argument.
A sober person would have, Cullen said, adding that Branch displayed a “total criminal disregard for the safety of others.”
Two drivers testified Wednesday they were behind Branch when he crashed into the bicycle riders, and one witnessed a rider flying over Branch’s vehicle after getting hit. Both witnesses said Branch was speeding when he passed them moments before the crash.
Morris, 34, testified Friday that Branch robbed him of a “very close friend,” most of his pre-crash memories and the ability to do things he once took for granted, such as taking long bike rides, skateboarding and running.
“I really don’t have much memory of that day or my life before that,” he told the jury. “It’s a constant issue. I have constant memory problems. I can’t remember unless there’s a stimulus.”
Morris, who suffered a shattered pelvis, nerve damage and other injuries, said his bike riding is limited and he fears “some idiot killing me” when he does ride.
Branch has a previous DWI charge and conviction. He was booked for his first DWI in 2006. His blood-alcohol level then was 0.241 percent, Baton Rouge City Court records show.
Branch was originally given a 60-day suspended jail term for that DWI, but the term was reinstated three days after the 2012 crash, the records indicate. He then was allowed to post bond under the condition that he go directly from jail to an inpatient treatment facility. He completed that treatment.