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  • Writer's pictureKaigan

17.5 Years in Prison for Manslaughter

Martin was released from prison in America three years ago. He had served 17 and a half years for manslaughter. He said that, prior to the incident, he was a functioning alcoholic. After work each day he'd buy four cans of beer from the grocery store and he’d drink them at home, where he lived with his girlfriend. Afterwards, he'd go to night classes where he was studying to be a nurse. From the outside, you’d think he had it all together and he believed he did too, 90% of the time. He told me he felt this allowed him to spend the other 10% of his time drinking all night, partying all weekend, and driving to and from the nightclub, while under the influence of alcohol.

It's New Year’s Eve 2003. Martin was at work and his boss let them off early because of the holiday. He remembers his boss joking with them,

Now you guys go out and have a good time tonight, but don’t let me wake up and see you on the front page of the paper.”

Of course, they all laughed it off and thought nothing of it. Martin then bought almost a litre of gin and went to his parents' house to hang out with his twin brother, where he proceeded to drink the gin. He later bought his customary four cans of beer and drank them before 8pm. Martin and his brother go to a friend’s house, where they drink more gin before going to another friend’s house party. As they’re leaving to head to the party, the friend’s mum tells them, “You guys be careful tonight, you hear?” but Martin told me they had no intention of being careful. They get into his car and drive to the party because, as he told me, sadly they thought nothing of drink driving as he and his friends would do it daily.

They bring in the new year and later upon leaving the party, Martin heads onto the freeway to drop his brother home. He realises how exhausted he is. He approaches an intersection and the stop he needs to make is just beyond it. He sees the light go yellow and he knows he isn’t going to make it before it turns red. In a split second he continues through the intersection anyway, not wanting to stop at the lights. Three or four seconds later it happens. He hears an earth-shattering crash.

At that point in time, Martin admits he was very superficial. His first thought isn’t for the people in the car he just hit, it’s to check his car is OK. At the time, his car equalled success. His brother alerts him to the fact somebody is lying on the road beside the other vehicle and Martin snaps out of it. It starts to resonate with him the magnitude of what he has done.

“I’m 24 years old. I have two people dead and another person injured who could still lose his life in the coming hours or days."

Three days later, in his cell, Martin is handed a newspaper.

“I see my picture on the front page. And with each paragraph I read, for the first time since this had happened, my faceless victims became people. And these people had a story. And their story was that they were recovering addicts who had managed to turn their lives around and were now helping other people get clean and sober. They were volunteers with mothers against drunk driving no less.”

The article had highlighted the heartbreaking irony that these people had been driving home from a clean and sober New Year's Eve party and were killed by a drunk driver. The following part of the article changed Martin’s life forever. "Perhaps the person they would have ended up helping the most is the man who is charged with killing them.”

Several months later after praying and meditating on this statement, it came to Martin. The only way this wouldn’t be in vain was if he carried on those people’s legacies. If he did everything he possibly could to make sure something like this never happened again.

Martin proceeded to spend 17 and a half years in prison for manslaughter where he trained to become a substance abuse counsellor. While in prison he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and a Master’s Degree in Psychology. Martin said he wouldn’t wish prison on his worst enemy but that where he was in life, he needed to go to prison to get to where he is today.

Martin shared what one of the most difficult things about prison is. He said,

“It’s the subtle, and not so subtle, reminders throughout your incarceration that convey to you that they do not see you as human, that you are sub-human. You are not to be trusted. It’s a constant bombardment of dehumanisation. I was very cautious to make sure that I didn’t allow those messages and cues and those ways of being treated to convince me…that I wasn’t deserving of the respect and humanity and dignity that they were.”

Martin spoke about the poor conditions he faced in prison, conditions that many other prisoners have to live in too that really aren’t acceptable. He said that the conditions themselves weren’t a deciding factor in whether he was going to back to prison. The conditions aren’t the deterrent. For him, the deterrent was that he was away from his family, unable to celebrate birthdays with his twin, unable to see his nieces and nephews grow up.

Many people have really strong opinions about people who commit crime. An often heard phrase is to ‘lock them up and throw away the key’. Many people don’t see the human behind the crime. They feel strong, negative emotions in their body when they hear about the crime and consequences and they take that energy and direct it towards the perpetrator as they don’t know how else to deal with it. This often comes from people who aren’t even connected to the crime in any way. So I was really blown away when I heard what a family member of one of the victims in Martin’s case did.

It was during the Covid-19 pandemic and towards the end of Martin’s prison sentence. They contacted Martin as they wanted to know if he needed anything in prison as they knew conditions in there would be particularly difficult during that time. Martin took the opportunity to tell them about all of his educational attainments from his time in prison and his plans to be a substance abuse counsellor upon release. They were delighted to hear how well he was doing and the positive impact he’d had on other people while he was in prison. A lovely example of how, sometimes, there can be some form of healing between perpetrators and victims/families of victims of crime after a heartbreaking tragedy.

You can listen to my full conversation with Martin here.


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