After hearing about the full and varied life of National Symphony Orchestra violinist Bryan E. Johnson, a Fairfax County jury had to decide yesterday how much to punish Mark A. Blowe for taking that life in a road rage episode along Interstate 66 last July 4.
The jury sent out four questions, deliberated for 2 1/2 hours, and then recommended Blowe spend the next 3 1/2 years in prison.
The night before, the jury had taken only an hour to decide that Blowe, 46, was guilty of involuntary manslaughter and felony hit-and-run in Johnson's death. Both men were former Marines, and their families made tearful pleas to the jury to consider the quality of both lives before they intersected just outside the Capital Beltway at dusk on Independence Day.
The jury could have sentenced Blowe, who previously served nine years in Maryland prison for a 1982 assault conviction, to as much as 20 years. Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Penney S. Azcarate asked jurors to impose that sentence.
"Bryan Johnson would have been 72 in 20 years," Azcarate reminded them, "and still probably teaching the violin." In addition to performing with the National Symphony since 1976, Johnson also had taught hundreds of violin students around the Washington area.
Johnson, 52, normally would have been playing with the symphony on the night of July 4, but had been excused for the first time in his career. Instead, he headed from his McLean home down the Beltway to hit golf balls at a driving range. Witnesses said that as Blowe exited from the Beltway to I-66, he began tailgating Johnson, then twice steered suddenly in front of Johnson's Toyota Camry and twice slammed on the brakes.
Johnson swerved both times to avoid colliding with Blowe's Dodge Intrepid -- the second time crashing into a concrete barrier and flipping over.
"The single fact that Bryan swerved to avoid the vehicle that was trying to do him harm," said his father, Karl Johnson, indicated that "Bryan died every bit a gentleman. A gentleman to his last breath."
Blowe, of Rockville, testified that Johnson had initiated hostilities by flashing his lights and making obscene gestures, a claim Johnson's family strongly doubted and that witnesses said they never saw. After Blowe sped away from the tumbling Camry, a Gainesville couple followed him and called his license number to police. A state trooper said Blowe told him he "wanted to teach him [Johnson] a lesson."
Blowe's brother-in-law, Thomas Proctor, testified that "Mark has always been a very honest person." He testified that he found Blowe's version of the accident -- Blowe said he was 10 to 15 car lengths in front of Johnson when Johnson swerved -- "very credible."
Johnson's fiancee, Alice Fisher, testified that Johnson also was an accomplished gardener, hiker, athlete, collector of Navajo items from his home state of New Mexico, and he completely renovated their previously vacant home.
"That his death could have been avoided is devastating," Fisher said. "I kissed him goodbye, he left home and never came back." She and a number of Johnson's friends were disappointed by the 3 1/2-year sentence, but Johnson's father said it was acceptable.
Jurors were reluctant to discuss the case. "It was just a very emotional situation for everybody," said juror Jennifer Aurili. Of the sentence, she said "we decided together that seemed to be the best result."
Another juror, who asked for anonymity, said: "This was a tragic accident, although one that could have been avoided. The three eyewitnesses were key for the prosecution."