Two families whose lives were profoundly changed by a drunk driver last spring mourned in a Burlington County courtroom yesterday, as one mother watched her son leave in handcuffs while another relived her son's life and death.
Thomas Thorn Jr., 22, of Tabernacle, tearfully apologized for causing the death of Shawn English, 19, of Marlton, before a judge sentenced him to eight years in prison for vehicular manslaughter and revoked his driving privileges for life. He received four additional years to serve concurrently for causing a death while driving with a suspended license.
"I'm truly sorry for what I've done," Thorn said, crying as he looked at the English family. "I would do anything I could in my power to turn back time and return Shawn to you."
Thorn's brief remarks followed more than two hours of statements from family and friends, who sobbed as they described English as a loving son and sibling, devoted friend, doting boyfriend, and young adult filled with joy.
"My heart has been broken," Cindy English told the judge as she recalled the police escort to Cooper University Hospital last spring, where her daughter, Courtney, was too distraught to go inside; where she found her husband, Dan, collapsed on the floor; and where her younger son, Eric, managed to hold the family together.
"I think about him every waking moment," she said. "Why him?"
About 1:15 a.m. May 24, Shawn English, a Burlington County College student, was on his way home after watching a movie at his girlfriend's house. He was driving north on Maple Avenue in Evesham when Thorn ran a red light at Route 70.
Assistant Prosecutor Theddeus E. Drummond said Thorn had been speeding west in his pickup when apprehended, for the second time for driving while intoxicated. This time, his blood-alcohol content was 0.179 percent, more twice the legal definition of drunken driving, officials said.
Drummond said Thorn's driving record listed nine traffic infractions, including speeding and unsafe operation of a vehicle, which led to his license suspension.
"Mr. Thorn had multiple wake-up calls," Drummond said. "And the message never got through. And tragically, we find ourselves sitting here today."
Cindy and Dan English comforted one another in the front row of the courtroom with two sets of parents beside them, their children nearby, and relatives and friends filling nearly the entire courtroom.
When the Englishes addressed Superior Court Judge John A. Almeida, they described the pain they felt trying to get through life without their oldest son. Cindy English spoke of endless appointments with counselors and doctors, sleepless nights filled with prescription drugs, and struggles at work as a nurse and at home as a mother.
Dan English lost his job two weeks before his son died. He said he had always expected he could protect his children. His beliefs, he said, had been "shaken to the core," including his faith in God.
"On more than one occasion, I thought of offing myself, to be with Shawn," he said, later looking at Thorn across the room. "One day Mr. Thorn will be free, and Shawn will still be dead."
Facing 10 years in prison, Thorn agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence. He will be eligible for parole in less than seven years.
With each person who spoke, a renewed grief swept the courtroom. A slide show showed pictures of English in diapers, with his siblings, with his girlfriend, and beside parents whose smiles showed no signs of stress.
English loved football, basketball and soccer. He played, coached and refereed games. The team of girls he coached for a community league appeared at the hearing in their red vests with the initials SE to memorialize English. His sister, Courtney, stood at the end of the line as each recalled fond memories.
Eric English said he missed his brother - his best friend - their "stupid" fights and hanging around.
"My parents will never be the same, and I have to see it every day," English told Thorn, his voice shaking.
Kelsey Marshall, who had been dating English, sat with her father, who said that he could forgive and that if Thorn came out of prison half the man English was, he would make a significant contribution to society.
"I just miss him so much," Kelsey Marshall said. "Like my dad, I do forgive Thomas."
When they were done speaking, defense attorney Salvatore J. Siciliano said his client was remorseful and will "never be free of this burden."
Thorn's mother, Karen Ballard, read a letter from Thorn's fiancée describing Thorn as a loving person who is tortured by the death.
Ballard, who sat behind her son with several others filling at least three rows in the courtroom, apologized to the English family and urged her son to forgive himself and change his life.
"You told me you could face the prison time, but not his family," Ballard said, acknowledging how they have come to know English as more than a faceless person they just read about.
Afterward, the English family thanked prosecutors and victim advocates but expressed frustration with the judicial system and those who did not keep a dangerous person off the road.
"We don't see today's sentencing as a victory," Dan English said in a statement. "No amount of time will be enough to replace a human life."