Inmate tries to drive home DWI warning



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HOLLIS - People drink and drive. That's a fact. Sometimes they drink and drive, get into accidents and kill themselves or others. That's also indisputable. What's less obvious is that drinking, and driving afterward, are choices; the consequences, including serious, irreversible injury and death, are not, according to State Prison inmate Jeremiah Johnson, who spoke to a standing-room-only audience of juniors and seniors at Hollis/Brookline High School on Tuesday. Johnson, 30, an architect who grew up in Northwood and graduated from Coe Brown High School, said he was never in trouble with the law and was the kind of person who wouldn't hurt a flea. He was a good student, an athlete and musician, and had earned bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture. He had a girlfriend, a job on the Seacoast, and he was planning to get married. Everything changed in the blink of an eye the night the Red Sox made baseball history 4-1/2 years ago. Johnson had been at a bar in Manchester celebrating his team's victory, its highest point in history in 80 years. "My whole life, I had been a diehard Red Sox fan," Johnson told the students, recalling the October night in 2004 when he and his buddy and dozens of other fans had packed the bar to watch the game and drink. Johnson, who was 26 then, left the bar planning to drive to a friend's place in the western part of the state for the weekend. He got lost, ended up on an unfamiliar road and remembered nothing about that night after waking up in the hospital, surrounded by his family. He had broken both feet, both arms, his collarbones and neck. The seatbelt, which had saved his life, had severed his small intestine and he had to undergo a colostomy that was later reversed. His mother wept, Johnson said, when she told him he crashed head-on at 45 mph into another vehicle traveling at the same speed. The young woman driving the car was badly hurt; the young man who was her passenger died. "It was hard for me to process," he said. "It's been a long process to realize what I've done, and don't know if I fully grasp it." A year later, after he was physically healed, Johnson went to court. He was sentenced to five years in State Prison for negligent homicide, a felony. In prison, he said he decided to do what he had always done in life: keep busy and make the best of his situation. Johnson said he earned privileges like taking painting classes, working out and teaching other inmates. He also participated in groups and other activities. In January, following extensive screenings and interviews, he was selected to take the place of another inmate who had been allowed to travel, under police custody, to high schools across the state to share his story. Since then, Johnson has presented his talk to high school students two or three times a week. His aim, he said, is to get teenagers to think before they act and to realize that each choice they make has consequences. Johnson doesn't talk much about using alcohol or other drugs. He doesn't tell students what they should - or shouldn't - do in their free time. During a brief interview after his talk, Johnson said what he strives for is to impress upon teenagers that they have choices, and that every choice, even the smallest one, has consequences. He added that he couldn't say how many times he had met a friend for a couple of beers and drove home afterward, thinking little if anything about what he was risking. And Johnson was hoping that as spring vacation, proms and graduation approach, students will keep his message in mind: you have control over your choices but not your consequences. Judging by the 'Thank yous' from students passing into the corridor after the program, Johnson made his point. "It's an example of how something so small can really affect everything for the rest of your life," said Phillip Cotton, 18 and senior. He said he saw in Johnson as well as himself and his friends, hardworking, good kids planning to go to college, get married, have families and live their lives.

 

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