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Man sentenced in fatal crash he can't remember

After the driver in a fatal crash admitted he had a blood alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit, Brittany Jo Niemann's family shared messages of anger, grief and efforts to forgive.

Johnathon Robert Lee Perkins, 31, of Grants Pass, was sentenced to jail, probation and a lifetime driver's license revocation after pleading guilty Friday in Jackson County Circuit Court to criminally negligent homicide and drunken-driving charges in the 2013 crash outside Gold Hill that caused Perkins permanent brain damage and killed the 26-year-old Niemann.

Niemann's mother recounted the moment when an Oregon State Police trooper arrived at her door late the night of Sept. 19, 2013 with news of the wreck. She asked the troopers if her daughter was OK. 

"They said 'deceased,'" her mother read through her tears. "I can never hear 'deceased' again without thinking of you."

Perkins' lawyer Christopher Missiaen said his client doesn't remember the events of the accident, in which Perkins was believed to have been behind the wheel of Niemann's Honda Civic when he hit a tree in the 3000 block of Sardine Creek Road. But Missiaen said his client is ready to admit fault based on photos of the crash and blood alcohol readings of .15 and .109 from draws after the wreck. The legal limit in Oregon is .08.

Niemann's father was unable to attend the sentencing, but gave the victim's mother his statement to read. In it, he urged Perkins to share his story about the dangers of drunk driving, and to get involved with organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"If you want to fix this, tell people what happened," the statement read.

He asked the former family friend not to contact their family again, but said he's trying to forgive him. 

"I don't know you, but anyone who's a friend of Brittany is a friend of mine," the statement said.

Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia followed the recommended sentence of two days in jail and five years of supervised probation after accepting Perkins' guilty pleas to a felony count of criminally negligent homicide and a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence of intoxicants. Perkins was ordered to undergo drug and alcohol treatment, attend a victim's impact panel and consume no intoxicants.

As part of the plea agreement, a Measure 11 charge of second-degree manslaughter was dismissed. Deputy District Attorney Nick Geil called the lenient plea agreement "unusual," but said it stemmed from the injuries Perkins sustained in the crash, and because he doesn't remember the accident.

Perkins suffered life-threatening injuries, including a skull fracture, arm fracture, the removal of his spleen and a traumatic brain injury that prevents him from working and limits his ability to care for himself, according to Missiaen.

“He was in a coma for 74 days and he has a permanent brain injury,” Missiaen said. “It’s a permanent injury that significantly affects him.”

Perkins handed the family and the court a letter he wrote, turned to Niemann's family and simply told them "I'm sorry for everything I've caused."

Mejia said the family's messages of grief, anger and forgiveness "demonstrate a significant loss." He acknowledged that it would be difficult, but he encouraged the family to try to move past the tragedy.

"It's all understandable," Mejia said. "Perhaps it'll take some counseling or perhaps it'll take a lot of time."

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.