Cody Shirah, 22, stood before the court and pleaded for leniency from the court and forgiveness from the families of his victims. He was not greeted with sympathy.
By Zach McDonald | Panama City News Herald
PANAMA CITY — Despite his attempts to convince the jury otherwise, Cody Austin Shirah was convicted Thursday of drunkenly plowing through a stop sign in September 2016 and killing four visiting Ohio softball players.
Immediately after receiving the verdict, Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet sentenced the 22-year-old Shirah to 60 years in prison and accepted part of the blame for releasing Shirah on drug offender probation only months before the fatal crash.
It took jurors about two and a half hours to find Shirah guilty as charged of fleeing the scene of a crash, four counts of DUI manslaughter and a count of DUI with bodily injury. After hearing the verdict, Overstreet also heard statements from the family members of the four victims — Anthony Gouge, 30, Eric Young, 25, William Gouge II, 29, and Josh Martin, 33, all of Ohio — about how the crash has changed their lives.
Shirah wept as each family called for the maximum punishment: life in prison.
“This tragedy has affected my entire family,” said Vicki Gouge, mother of William Gouge and aunt of Anthony Gouge. “I live daily through pain and suffering. I am empty inside, and I will never be the same.”
Jessica Redmond, Martin’s sister, echoed a similar sentiment. She spoke about her brother’s personality and told Shirah that Martin was more than a name on his charging documents.
“You should know how much destruction you caused,” she told Shirah. “You should live with that, and no amount of jail time will make up for it. We hope one day you grow up and are a better person than you were when you killed my brother.”
Charles Kennedy, Young’s grandfather, spoke about how his grandson’s parents have sunk into a deep depression since the crash.
“They have trouble finding joy in their lives,” Kennedy told the court. “Despair has overwhelmed them as their first born was taken away.”
Kennedy added that Young’s daughter and son also have been traumatized.
Shirah stood before the court and pleaded for leniency from the court and forgiveness from the families of his victims. He was not greeted with sympathy.
In the final day of trial, Shirah attempted to convince jurors of his version of events leading up to the crash. He took the stand to say he had only consumed two beers that night at a friend’s house and was heading home when he clipped a truck on U.S. 231 he was attempting to pass. Shirah claimed he tried to stop and swap information, but the driver of the other truck became “very aggressive.”
Shirah said he then fled out of fear down Pinetree Road with the mother of his child, Kristun Nichole Tullier, in the passenger seat. As he approached the intersection with John Pitts Road, Shirah did not see the headlights of the van carrying the softball players pull into his path, he claimed.
“I was scared. The way he was acting, if I stopped, he would’ve hit me,” Shirah said, tearing up. “I didn’t see the stop sign. I was looking in my rear-view mirror behind me at the vehicle that was chasing me.”
Despite admitting to drinking two beers — which was contrary to the findings of expert toxicology witnesses from both sides that testified his blood alcohol content was above the legal limit of 0.08 percent — Shirah would not agree his consumption constituted “multiple beers.”
Shirah’s defense attorney Caren Bennett focused in her closing arguments on the testimony of Williams Futch, the man Shirah sideswiped, to further her claim that Shirah feared harm when he left the hit-and-run. Futch testified that he immediately called 911 after being struck by Shirah. But Bennett told jurors it was suspicious that the 911 call started with the caller screaming about the fatal crash.
“It was never investigated what their role was,” Bennett said. “Road rage in Florida is not something looked lightly upon. They would be in trouble, so they removed themselves.”
Bennett also called into question the instruments used to take Shirah’s blood after the wreck and disputed the method of “retrograde extrapolation” to determine his blood alcohol content at the time of the crash.
However, prosecutor Larry Basford replied that doctors trust the tools used to take Shirah’s blood all the time to make life and death decisions.
“The defense wants you to just throw that out — it’s too close to the time of the wreck,” Basford told the jury.
To show that the witness wasn’t chasing Shirah before the crash, Basford referred to the testimony of surviving eyewitnesses in each of the softball vans who did not see the truck trailing Shirah. They did hear the roar of Shirah’s exhaust as he accelerated through the stop sign, only to look up and see the fatal impact that scattered dead and wounded on the street.
The jury sided with the prosecution.
By giving his testimony, Shirah admitted he willfully violated his probation on three felonies by drinking alcohol and being out after his curfew. He faced up to an additional 15 years in prison, but Overstreet sentenced him to five years in prison concurrent with one of the DUI manslaughter sentences.
Before handing down the sentence, though, Overstreet took part of the blame for the fatal crash. Only months earlier, he had released Shirah on drug offender probation.
“When these people consider how this happened, it started with this sentence. I did that,” Overstreet told Shirah, shaking his head. “Every opportunity was afforded for you to live lawfully and address your problems with substance abuse. The system has failed this family, and I bear some responsibility for that.”