EAST COUNTY — Less than 24 hours after the car crash that claimed their son’s life, John and Dehlia Garrity forgave Josh Hunter for driving drunk.
And five years after the crash that killed Doug Garrity, his parents hope their forgiveness will power action.
After the Garritys testified on their forgiveness at a state clemency hearing March 19, Florida’s Clemency Board is considering reducing Hunter’s 10-year prison sentence, a move that would provide closure for the victim’s family.
The clemency board — made up of Florida’s Cabinet officials: Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam — did not make a decision that day, and there is no timetable for it to do so.
A decision to grant clemency would be nearly unprecedented.
Since Scott took office, the board has only approved one sentence reduction.
But the Garritys — and the joint bid with Hunter’s family to reduce his prison sentence — is far from ordinary.
“When people say, ‘You’re so Christian. You’re so good (for forgiving).’ I tell them that it’s not us, it’s Doug,” said Dehlia Garrity, who sits on a couch in her son’s former “man cave,” where he used to watch football after long nights coaching the sport as the defensive line coach at Braden River High School.
“This is what Doug would want,” she said. “It could have been Doug driving that truck. They were all brothers in that truck and they all are at fault. They all had a chance to say no.”
Doug Garrity, 27, died March 22, 2009, after a 2001 Ford truck driven by Hunter, Doug’s best friend, flipped while negotiating a turn on State Road 681, in Nokomis.
All the passengers had been drinking at a party that night.
Hunter and fellow passengers Matthew Braselton and James E. Hunter did not sustain injuries.
The Garrity’s path to forgiveness began the morning after the crash, which occurred just before midnight March 21.
John and Dehlia Garrity wanted to see Hunter — Braden River High School’s first head football coach and Doug’s role model.
The Garritys did not want to scold Hunter, a warm and large man with a doughy face and thick, dark eyebrows — all similarities to their son.
They just wanted to hear from him what happened; they wanted to forgive him.
So, at around 9 a.m. March 22, 2009, the Garritys summoned their older son, Patrick, to Hunter’s home.
Patrick found Hunter crying in the fetal position on the floor.
“As soon as Josh knew we wanted to see him, he got up, got dressed and walked in our door,” said Dehlia Garrity, a teacher at Braden River Elementary School. “Josh said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘I know you are. I know you are.’ We forgave him right then.”
The Garritys say prosecutors did not let them testify on Hunter’s behalf until six weeks before the trial.
Hunter initially tried to pursue a plea deal, but prosecutors were not receptive to it.
Wary of a new judge who the Garritys felt wanted to make an example of a high-profile case, Hunter pleaded not guilty and did not admit he was driving until sentencing.
Hunter’s brother, James, was sentenced to three months in jail for refusing to testify.
In May 2010, the judge found Hunter guilty of DUI manslaughter.
He is scheduled to be released from Avon Park Correctional Institution Dec. 15, 2021.
“My wife and I believe Josh wouldn’t have felt right if he wasn’t punished in some way,” said John Garrity, a construction contractor and former fireman. “But that’s just too long to be out of circulation. How relevant will he be in 10 years? Will the system change him by then? He could be out there helping kids.”
‘Strong, silent types’
Doug Garrity, the product of a track star and a cheerleader, played defensive line at Bayshore High School.
School was hard for Doug, because he learned slowly. But he graduated with a degree in education from Valdosta State University and proudly hung his diploma on the wall in the “man cave.”
Doug moved back home and became the dropout prevention teacher at Braden River High School.
As soon as he got the job, he reached out to Hunter to help coach football.
Doug coached defensive line and boys and girls weightlifting.
Hunter, a married man who is a few years older than Doug, became fast friends with his assistant coach.
“They are the same type of men — strong, silent types and resilient and passionate about kids,” Dehlia Garrity said. “Doug spent more time at Josh’s house than he did here. I would offer Josh’s wife money because I worried Doug was eating them out of their home.”
Besides the sleepovers at Hunter’s house — at the consent of Josh’s wife, Anne, who is also his attorney — the head coach encouraged Doug to mentor students.
One football player on Hunter and Doug’s team did not have a father around. Doug would pick the student up from his home and drive him to practice.
Today, the student calls John Garrity every day.
An unusual case
After the Florida Second District Court of Appeal refused to overturn Hunter’s sentence in April 2012, the Garritys and Hunter’s family — his parents, Sally and Jim, and Anne — united to find another way.
Anne Hunter declined to be interviewed for this story, but the Garritys said about a year ago, she introduced them to the idea of seeking clemency through the state.
Between the families, they gathered 100 pages of letters and other documents supporting Hunter.
Some of the letters came from people who did not know Hunter, but they knew Doug and could testify to his capacity for forgiveness.
The Florida Parole Commission investigated the case and sent the Garritys a letter, recommending clemency.
The Garritys thought the clemency board would yield a decision at the March 19 hearing, but it did not.
Anne, representing Hunter at the hearing, let the Garritys do most of the talking.
They are optimistic about the board’s reception to their plea.
“They all said this was a highly unusual case, where the victim’s family testifies so strongly for a sentence reduction,” John Garrity said. “This is like having a son incarcerated.”
Molly Kellogg-Schmauch, a spokeswoman for the clemency board, said there is no timetable for a decision.
Scott must be on the prevailing side of any vote with at least two other board members.
For Hunter, a sentence reduction would represent a chance to make good out of bad.
He could talk about the incident to the community and speak against drunken driving.
For the Garritys, the significance of Hunter’s potential freedom would be more complex.
“Sure, part of it is us being selfish,” Dehlia Garrity said. “To see and touch him would be like seeing my son.”
Hunter is improving himself in prison, the Garritys say.
He became certified by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration so he can drive a forklift and work in a shop where inmates re-tread tires.
As the victim’s family, the Garritys are not allowed to visit Hunter in prison — or to communicate with him at all.
They sneak messages to Hunter, indirectly, through letters written by Anne.
Hunter’s responses shorten the distance to the outside world; but, to the Garritys, he is not close enough — yet.
“I can see it (Hunter’s freedom) clear as day,” Dehlia Garrity said. ‘It’s right there. It’s right there.”
Contact Josh Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org.