The long legal steeplechase finally was nearing an end, 16 months after the crash.
The former Georgia State Patrol trooper who in his rush to join a high-speed pursuit had killed Kathy Porter on New Year’s Eve 2011 was preparing to plead guilty and accept his sentence.
No lawsuits were pending. Kathy Porter’s family had decided it was time to move on to anyplace rather than the cold chambers of a civil court.
Jeff Porter, the Braves’ long-time athletic trainer, Kathy’s husband and the man at the wheel the day she died, was going to get a measure of justice he so passionately sought.
How would any of us react at a moment like that?
Porter was at a boil. All sides agreed it was a tense meeting. Upset after watching a recent interview Crozier had given Channel 2 Action News, Porter questioned the man’s motives for expressing his remorse then, so late in the process. He repeatedly called the former trooper cowardly.
“(Porter) holds a great deal of ill-will toward Donald Crozier. He is a very angry man,” said Crozier’s attorney, Mike Hawkins.
“It was like he was unloading a year-and-a-half of grief,” Hawkins added.
Crozier had no response after the outburst. He later pleaded guilty to three charges — homicide by vehicle in the first degree, reckless driving and violation of oath by a public officer. He was sentenced to two years in prison and eight years’ probation.
Porter had spoken publicly only once about the crash, at the Braves’ spring training site shortly after it happened. Last week, having put the legal wranglings far enough behind him, Porter spoke again about the case and the difficult, ongoing process of dealing with his wife’s death. The sentencing was done, but the personal trial for Porter is far from over.
At least the sentencing represented a step toward recovery, Porter said, even if the prison sentence was not long enough in his eyes.
“I wanted justice for my wife, and I wanted justice for David’s mom,” he said last week, mentioning the couple’s only child.
“Was I relieved? Yeah. Relieved that we didn’t have to go through the trial process. We had to relive it enough as it was.”
Closure is the word invented to describe moments like the sentencing. It is a clumsy, simplistic word attached to tragedies that lack any hope of complete understanding or any kind of clean conclusion.
“The fact that it was one more part of the process that was behind us — if that’s the definition of closure, yeah, I had some,” Porter said.
“Just because the trial process is over you don’t have complete closure. I know I don’t. I know David doesn’t. I know we’re moving forward as best we can, trying to live our lives.”
The crash — “I no longer refer to it as an accident,” Porter said — was felt by everyone in the Braves organization. With the team now for 28 years, the head athletic trainer for the past 11, Porter occupies a special role of caregiver. The night of his wife’s death, a handful of coaches and players joined Porter at Grady Hospital to offer their support as he had so often offered his.
On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2011, the Porters, their son and his girlfriend at the time were on their way to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Practically within sight of his Turner Field workplace Porter drove through the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Memorial Drive as Crozier was barreling through at an estimated 65 mph, with lights flashing and siren sounding. The trooper was attempting to join a pursuit on I-20. The passenger side of the Porter’s SUV took the worst of the collision, killing Kathy.
According to the indictment, Porter had the right of way, and Crozier did not properly slow down while entering the intersection. The prosecution cited three other accidents in which Crozier had been found at fault.
As the case wound slowly from investigation to indictment to plea agreement, Porter faced certain conflicts over the prosecution of a law officer. The father of a boyhood friend back in his home of North Carolina had been a trooper killed in the line of duty, a man Porter respected immensely. He had to separate the person from the uniform.
“He was a man, not an institution,” Porter said. “There are way too many good troopers out there who do the job right. It was him, it was not the Georgia State Patrol. That’s how I balanced it.
“I believed (Crozier’s expression or remorse) was sincere. I don’t think he’s an evil man or anything like that. But he had a behavior problem, he had a driving problem. He had a bad record.”
He has taken a route to the ballpark this past season-and-a-half that avoids the intersection of Capitol and Memorial. “That would just put you in a bad frame when you are getting ready to come to work. I couldn’t start every day like that,” he said.
He has envisioned legislation, bearing his wife’s name, aimed at keeping reckless officers off the roads. But he acknowledges it is difficult to know how to begin such a push.
His son, David, he said, “has done remarkably well” and still is at Auburn working on an animal-science degree with designs on going to vet school.
Porter kept the family home in Loganville, unwilling to part with it because it meant so much to his son.
A tree grows outside that home, one that is a very real example of endurance and renewal that comes in useful now. After the crash, Gene Chizik, then the football coach at Auburn, gave the family an oak sapling that was an offshoot of the famed Toomer’s Corner trees near campus. The originals have been since cut down, but 125 miles away another one thrives.
“It looks good,” Porter said. “The tree is a living symbol; it’s very special.”