TAMPA — It seemed like a coup for a man sent to prison for life. After years spent reading law books, handwriting arguments and filing appeals, Joseph Safrany got a judge to grant him a chance for a new sentence.
Safrany, who was drunk and speeding when he killed three men and injured one in a crash, asked the judge to cut his sentence. He said he'd be a productive citizen and a cautionary voice in the crusade against drunken driving.
But on Monday, Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman decided that wasn't enough.
The highest sentences he could impose were either life in prison or 50 years. He traded one maximum for the other and sent the 45-year-old away for half a century.
Safrany's family left without comment and talked of an appeal with his attorney. Those who buried three men felt relief, but knew the case would never really be over.
The new sentence had done little more than reopen old wounds, rehashing the horror of April 7, 2000.
Behind the wheel of a Cadillac, Safrany zoomed down Sheldon Road going 73 mph in a 45 mph zone. His blood-alcohol level was 0.18 percent, more than twice the limit state law considers a driver impaired.
Also on the road early that morning were four men who had been partying in Ybor City. Their Honda was hit so hard, it rolled for 140 feet.
Three died — Troy Call, 24, Brandon Smith, 19, and Shawn Falla, 20. Robert Falla, then 23, broke his neck and legs but lived.
Had the Honda's driver survived, Call, also an airman, could have faced charges. He, too, was drunk.
Safrany, who suffered broken ribs, was released from jail on $55,000 bail. Three weeks before his trial, his friends threw him a party. And then he vanished.
The former lighting salesman hid for 15 months under a dead man's identity. But after he saw himself on America's Most Wanted, he gave up.
Prosecutors offered him a plea deal: 15 years for driving under the influence manslaughter and five years for being a fugitive. Safrany turned them down.
On the day he was sentenced, Safrany declined to defend himself. He spoke only after a judge had sentenced him, telling families he was sorry. But in his appeal, he said his mother never got a chance to speak.
Six years later, Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco decided to give his family that chance. The original sentencing judge retired, and Timmerman inherited the case. In August, family members filled his courtroom. They spoke for three hours.
Beverly Falla said her son's death warranted a life sentence. Eileen Safrany said her son, though still alive, died inside that night, too. She said he was sorry and deserved mercy.
The judge set the sentencing for Monday.
Safrany prepared notes.
"This accident was a tragedy," he told the judge. "This tragedy was also an accident …
"I have no expectation about walking out of prison today or any time soon, but what I'm looking for today is to take some responsibility for my part in this tragedy, to become a productive member of society."
His attorney asked for 20 years in prison, what prosecutors had offered in the long-expired deal. Prosecutors now asked for life.
The time came for all to listen to the judge, who started by saying he read the entire transcript.
"I've read it. I've thought about it. I've agonized over it," Timmerman said, "because this is one of the toughest things I've ever had to do."
He said he fundamentally disagreed with the life sentence Circuit Judge Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett gave on Aug. 15, 2003.
"Having said that, I think that Mr. Safrany and his actions justify imposing the maximum sentence for each crime."
For each dead man, Safrany will spend 15 years in prison. For the one he injured, five. He will serve the sentences consecutively but get credit for time served.
The defendant addressed the judge in a tone a lawyer might use to talk about case logistics.
He didn't need to be appointed an attorney for appeal, Safrany said. "I'll take care of that."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.