DADE CITY — Heather Dison follows Jason Hamilton's MySpace page and thinks about him on his birthday. She weeps for his death at the hands of a drunken driver who struck his car while going the wrong way on U.S. 301.
Authorities say Dison was that driver.
"I miss Jason even though I didn't know him," she said in court Tuesday, tearfully reading a letter she wrote to Hamilton's loved ones. "I think he was a wonderful person. I wish his family still had him."
Dison, 35, faced up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty last month to DUI manslaughter and other DUI-related charges.
Without a deal with prosecutors, her sentence was left to Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa, who was visibly troubled over what to impose.
Ultimately, he took into account her prior DUI conviction from 1995 and sentenced her to 12 years in prison, in accordance with state guidelines.
"You should have learned at that time," the judge said. "You didn't."
On June 16, 2007, the Florida Highway Patrol said, Dison was driving a 2006 GMC pickup north in the southbound lanes of U.S. 301 when she collided with Hamilton's southbound 1979 Cadillac coupe. Another southbound vehicle, driven by Cedric Washington of Dade City, swerved to avoid the wreck, hit a pole and overturned.
Hamilton died at the scene. Jeremy Jenkins, a passenger in Hamilton's vehicle, along with Washington and four passengers from his vehicle, were injured.
Jenkins testified that he has chronic back pain and had to have 12 teeth removed after the crash.
"I've been suffering every day since the accident," he said.
Tracy Harmon said her daughter, who was engaged to Hamilton and three months' pregnant when he died, has never been the same. She was in a car ahead of Hamilton's when the crash happened and held his body in the road.
Hamilton's mother, Beulah Lee, tried to speak but was too emotional.
Dison's side pleaded for leniency, mainly because of Dison's 12-year-old daughter, who is living with her grandmother but frequently threatens to run away. Dison's attorney, Mina Morgan, said Dison would serve any amount of prison time "if she could just get her daughter through high school."
The judge said her daughter's needs were a compelling reason to give a lighter sentence. But "that's something you should have thought of before you did this," Siracusa said.
Dison said she went to the Cheers 54 bar in Zephyrhills that night to try to mask her grief over another daughter who died in 2005. Later on, knowing she shouldn't drive, she asked an acquaintance to drive her home. But somehow — she doesn't remember how — they ended up in Dade City with Dison behind the wheel.
"I always pray for you all and think of him, what he might be enjoying if he were here with you," she said to the victims. "I hope that everyone has recovered as well as they can and will have good lives," she said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.