As members of Peter Seppanen's family delivered victim-impact statements inside a Duluth courtroom Thursday, one phrase came up over and over again.
It was a "senseless act" for Stanley Brown to consume alcohol before he got behind the wheel. It was a "senseless act" for Brown to be looking at his phone while driving. It was a "senseless act" for the defendant to leave the scene without summoning help after striking the oncoming motorcyclist.
"He left Peter for dead like he hit a deer or another animal," Harriet Erickson said in a letter read in court. "My grandson did not deserve to be left behind like roadkill."
Appearing before 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Sally Tarnowski, Brown accepted a guideline sentence of 6 ½ years in prison for fatally striking the 30-year-old Esko man along a West Duluth street in May.
"He's not asking for any leniency from the court," defense attorney Keith Shaw said. "He believes it is now time to pay the price for what he's done."
Brown, 30, was driving his Jeep down Haines Road/40th Avenue West at the "horseshoe bend" just before 7 p.m. when his vehicle crossed the center line and struck Seppanen, throwing him into the air, according to court documents. Duluth police found the victim lying facedown and unconscious not far from the damaged motorcycle.
A short while later, police found the Jeep with front-end damage to the hood and windshield on 52nd Avenue West. Brown was outside the vehicle trying to change a flat tire. He was taken into custody.
Duluth police detected the smell of alcohol on Brown's breath and took him to the West Duluth substation. Brown submitted to the test but failed to provide a sufficient sample in three separate tries, according to the complaint. He also was reported to have a small amount of marijuana in his possession.
In a subsequent interview, Brown admitted that he had been drinking prior to the crash and said he may have been looking at his phone, taking the turn too wide. He said he never saw the motorcycle until the collision occurred.
Brown pleaded guilty Oct. 29 to a felony count of criminal vehicular homicide and a gross misdemeanor count of second-degree test refusal. A count of fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance was dismissed.
Brown told St. Louis County prosecutor Kristen Swanson at the plea hearing that it wasn't until after he left the scene that he realized he had hit someone. He admitted that he failed to contact authorities, saying he was "scared."
Family seeks justice, but offers forgiveness
In emotional testimony, Seppanen's family recalled learning of his death.
"We were lost. We were devastated," said his stepfather, Rick Helander. "That knock on the door will forever echo in our brains."
Seppanen, a journeyman with IronWorkers Local No. 512, was described as a hard worker who took pride in his job. The family said he was quiet and humble, but fun to be around.
"It's so hard to believe I will never hear his voice again or get a hug," said Erickson, his grandmother. "Nothing or no one can ever replace such a special grandson. I'm almost 82 years young and I have never experienced so much grief until now."
Seppanen played many sports and enjoyed hunting and fishing with his dad. His family said he was making plans to buy a house and wanted to settle down and start a family.
"The memories are all we have," his father, Jim Seppanen, said. "There will be no new memories."
His mother, Bonnie Helander, added: "I am physically and emotionally devastated. All sense of normalcy is gone. I cry at night. I lay awake. I am numb."
Family members said they will have to forgive Brown in order to move forward and not be "consumed by anger and hate." But many asked the judge to impose a stiff sentence.
"Until we pass, we will have to deal with the hurt that was brought upon us by a senseless act," Rick Helander said. "It's not embarrassing to ask for a ride. It's not unmanly to ask for a ride. It's not stupid to just stay where you're at."
Asked if he had anything to say, Brown told the court, "Nothing."
Tarnowski said she hopes the family's message will inspire others to think twice about driving under the influence or using phones while behind the wheel.
"You made some very bad decisions on May 28," the judge told Brown. "As a result of those decisions, someone died. I have no words for this. But you're going to have a lot more decisions to make in life. I hope you've learned from your decisions."