Head hung, hands clasped loosely on the table in front of him, Austin John Wright?s hazel eyes peered down at his lap. He waited anxiously for the hearing to begin, knowing that in a matter of hours, he might be trading in his neatly pressed slacks for a jumpsuit and a pair of handcuffs.
After pleading guilty to manslaughter, Wright, 22, waited to be sentenced in an Alachua County courtroom.
Judge Peter Sieg entered the room at 2 p.m. on Dec. 12. His job was as simple as it was profoundly difficult.
He did not have to decide whether Wright went barhopping the night of April 2, 2007.
Nor did he need to determine whether it was Wright who drove a truck into Gainesville Police Department Lt. Corey Dahlem on University Avenue around 2 a.m. the morning of April 3.
Wright had already admitted he was behind the wheel that night. He?d had so much to drink that when police cars finally boxed him in after he had plowed through a barricade and sent Dahlem?s body flying across the street, Wright was unaware of what he had done.
His blood alcohol level was 0.271 œ more than three times the legal limit.
Dahlem died the next afternoon.
Both Wright and the prosecution agreed on these facts. Now it was up to Sieg to punish him.
Depending on the judge?s discretion, Wright could walk out of court with his family that night and pay for his crime with community service. Or, he could spend up to 30 years in prison.
The next six hours would make clear that no matter how the judge ruled, both the Wright and Dahlem families would be imprisoned by Wright?s actions for the rest of their lives.
Photo courtesy of Alachua County Clerk of the Court. Austin Wright poses with his family during a Summer 2006 vacation to the Florida Keys.
Death: A Life Sentence for Dahlems
State prosecutor Geoffrey Fleck was first to present his side.
He introduced witness after witness, who shared fond memories of Dahlem.
Several themes emerged as Dahlem?s friends and family spoke.
Dahlem was a true family man.
Nothing came before his wife, Sally, his daughter, Katie, and his son, Brandon. Nothing.
Lt. Scott Meffen remembered that after his fellow GPD officers had nicknamed Dahlem BSpoon,C he proudly introduced his newborn son Brandon to the force as BTeaspoon.C
Wanting to spend more time with his young children, Dahlem asked to work night shifts so he could stay at home during the day.
Dahlem was an officer of impeccable integrity. He moved up quickly in the department?s ranks because he was a good policeman. For years he was trusted to train young officers, teaching them to be thorough and fair.
He was an invaluable leader.
Dahlem?s father, Ted, said he had no mercy for Wright.
BIn my mind the driver is a murderer and his passengers accomplices, and no one will ever change my mind,C he said, pausing to stare sharply in Wright?s direction.
After listening to hours of painful testimony, Sally Dahlem finally rose to speak.
With a shaky voice she recounted the night her husband was hit. As soon as she met with the doctors, she knew he wouldn?t survive.
She remembered making the phone calls no mother should ever have to make. First was to Katie.
BHow would I tell her that her father was going to die?C she remembered thinking. BI have never felt so hopeless or lost as I did in that moment.C
All she could do was hold her children as they cried inconsolably in the hospital room.
Twenty people were with her, she said, but she felt completely alone.
The pain was almost unbearable on Father?s Day, which Katie and Brandon spent changing the flowers and crying at their father?s grave.
The pain would be felt every day for the rest of their lives, she said, some days more sharply than others.
Katie and her father had already chosen BButterfly KissesC as the song they would dance to on her wedding day.
BWhat will it be like for Katie to be crying for her dad on her wedding day instead of dancing with him?C she said.
DUI Ended Promising Future
Mary Wright was the first person to speak in her son?s defense. She stood between her husband and her oldest son, with a tissue in her hand and a cross around her neck.
BYour loss is beyond my comprehension,C she began, turning to face Sally Dahlem.
Yet, she continued, her son deserved compassion.
BYour Honor, Austin is not a criminal,C she said.
More than 15 people would make the same argument in the hours that followed.
His friends, family members, psychologist and minister saw Wright as a caring, friendly young man, not a killer.
In the summertime he taught children how to play soccer. During his Spring Break he volunteered in New Orleans, helping rebuild homes that had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Megan Boone, Wright?s longtime friend, spoke of his integrity.
BFor a gentle soul like Austin, living with the fact that he has taken another life is punishment enough,C Boone said.
Finally it was time for the young man whose life once held such promise to explain to Sieg, the Dahlem family and the Gainesville community why he deserved mercy.
He began by taking full blame for his actions and for Dahlem?s death.
BBut,C he said, BI did not mean it.C
BI have no idea what you are all through,C he told the Dahlem family, but as he sniffled and paused to regain his composure, Wright tried to imagine.
BThis past Father?s Day I couldn?t help but think about you all day,C he said. BThanksgiving was the same thing. I know that this Christmas you won?t have your dad.C
BI wish there was some way I could take it all back.C
Sentence Leaves No Winners
After more than six hours of patient listening, Sieg was prepared to announce his decision.
Certain factors supported a light sentence, he said. Wright?s actions were isolated, he was clearly remorseful, and he could use his influence toward a positive end.
Certain factors supported a heavy sentence.
Dahlem was a uniformed police officer on duty at the time of his death. Wright had made a series of bad choices, not least of which was his choice to consume an excessive amount of alcohol.
Sieg?s decision, he warned, would leave 95 percent of the courtroom dissatisfied.
Matter-of-factly, Sieg looked out into the courtroom and announced that Wright would spend the next 10 years in a state prison. After eight and a half years, he would be eligible for parole.
Sally, Katie and Brandon left the courtroom immediately. They later said they had hoped for a longer sentence, but felt he got what he deserved.
Wright removed his jacket. He loosened his tie, took one final look into his family?s drained faces, and disappeared behind a courtroom door. Dozens of people filed into the lobby. Most hugged more than they spoke.
As Wright?s supporters left, his parents were sure to thank them for making the trip.
Mary Wright left her friends and family with two simple words.
BDrive safely,C she said.