BROOKSVILLE — His thin frame hunched in a wheelchair, Mikell Begley started to sob Thursday morning as he apologized for the decision that took his friend's life one day last spring.
"All I can say is, I'm truly, truly sorry for the loss of your brother, father, husband and son," Begley said in a croaky, high-pitched voice, his lips hidden behind a bushy red beard. "I wish I could trade places with Gary, but I can't."
A few moments later, Chief Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. sentenced Begley to 11 years in prison for driving drunk and causing a crash that killed his passenger, 46-year-old Gary S. Ziegler of Spring Hill.
"If you have any conscience at all, the most difficult penalty that you're going to have is dealing with the fact that you caused the death of another human being and a person who was a friend of yours," Merritt said. "You're going to have to live with that for the rest of your life."
Merritt handed down the sentence after Begley, 33, pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter.
Had he been convicted at trial, the Brooksville resident faced a maximum prison term of 15 years. He has several prior arrests in Florida, including a burglary conviction in Hernando in 2007, records show.
Begley also pleaded no contest to a charge of battery on a corrections officer. That charge, which came after Begley spat on an officer at the Hernando County Detention Center earlier this month, could have tacked on another five years to his prison term, had he been convicted at trial. Instead, Merritt levied a three-year sentence to run concurrently with Begley's manslaughter term.
Friends for about a decade, Begley and Ziegler worked together in the construction business. On the afternoon of April 23, they headed to Felony's Bar and Grill in Spring Hill to shoot pool and wash down chicken wings with beer.
Afterward, Begley was driving his 2004 Ford Taurus on Forest Oaks Boulevard near Forest Oaks Circle about 9 p.m. when he came to a curve and veered into the other lane, nearly colliding head-on with a Hernando sheriff's deputy, Assistant State Attorney Bill Catto said.
Trying to avoid a crash, Begley lost control. The Taurus careened onto the north shoulder of the road, started to spin and slammed into a tree before coming to rest on its side.
Both men were wearing seat belts. Ziegler died at the scene from a blunt-force head injury. Begley also suffered a critical head injury and was taken to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson.
Toxicology test results revealed that Begley's blood-alcohol level was 0.121 and 0.125. Under Florida law, a driver is presumed to be intoxicated when the blood-alcohol level reaches 0.08.
In court Thursday, Begley wore a red jumpsuit denoting a prisoner whose behavior could be a risk to himself or others. A white helmet on his head protected his battered brain from further injury.
"There was a significant period of time (after the crash) that they didn't expect him to make it," David Bauer, Begley's public defender, told Merritt. "But he did, and he's here today to answer to the wrongs he's committed."
Catto sought the maximum sentence, telling Merritt that Ziegler's wife, Deborah, who did not attend the hearing, wanted that.
Bauer asked Merritt to show his client leniency by meting out a punishment at the bottom of the state guidelines, a little less than 11 years.
In the first row of the gallery, 52-year-old Richard Ziegler shook his head and muttered under his breath. The Crystal River resident came to the hearing to ask for the maximum penalty, too.
When it was his turn to speak, Richard Ziegler said he helped raise his little brother because their father wasn't around.
A married father of three young children, Gary Ziegler loved decorating the house for the holidays, and the kids loved to see what their dad had created, his brother said.
"He eventually became the man I always hoped he would be," Ziegler said. "He has been ripped from their lives because of the actions of this selfish, irresponsible man."
He turned to Begley.
"You should not be able to sit and relax with your family," Ziegler said, "when I will never be able to see or hug my brother ever again."
Jeff Begley walked to the lectern and said he couldn't argue with any of what Ziegler said. But Begley, who was also friends with Gary Ziegler and his family, asked Merritt to consider his brother's fragile health.
Mikell Begley was showing progress while undergoing physical therapy in a nursing home, his brother said. He was walking some and thinking more clearly. Then he was transferred to the county jail and started to regress.
"I don't want him to get a life sentence out of this. And if he doesn't get the proper care, physically and mentally, he'll have zero life when he gets out of prison," Jeff Begley said.
A few minutes later, Mikell Begley made his tearful statement. At one point, he become so emotional that his words were impossible to understand. Strangers in the packed courtroom wiped away tears.
After the hearing, a reporter asked Richard Ziegler if he thought the sentence was appropriate, given Begley's remorse.
"Yes and no," he replied.
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: TMarreroTimes and HernandoTimes.