A 41-year-old Pickering man who pleaded guilty to killing two international students and injuring another while drunk and speeding, cried uncontrollably as he apologized to the victims’ families, blaming the accident on alcohol and his mental state at the time.
“I stand before you as the guilty person that caused the accident on Dec. 22, 2019 that took the lives of Mr. Kussain and Mr. Zhu-Li and injuring Mr. Zhu-Li,” said 41-year-old Michael Johnson through tears on Thursday. “That night I was not in the right state of mind. It was never my intentions to hurt anyone but myself. My own thoughts of killing myself harmed innocent people because I was selfish and drove while over the legal drinking limit.
“I vow to live my life in sobriety and will try my best to make sure no one makes the same mistakes I made. I will continue to work on myself and want to be an advocate against drinking and driving and bring more awareness to men’s mental health,” he continued.
In January, Johnson pleaded guilty to six counts including impaired driving causing the death of 19-year-old Wei Jie Zhu Li and 19-year-old Damir Kussain and impaired driving causing the bodily harm of Zhu Li’s 21-year-old brother, Jun Jie. All three were students at Centennial College at the time.
According to the agreed statement of facts, the brothers and their friend were walking to their residence on Progress Avenue just east of Markham Road when the 2014 Mazda 3 Johnson was driving mounted the curb and struck the three young men.
Weijie Zhu Li and Kussain were killed instantly and Jun Jie Zhu Li suffered injuries to his head.
Johnson, a Canada Post employee, had been drinking with a cousin after work at a nearby Jack Astor’s and was driving home drunk. At the time of the crash, he was speaking to his wife on the phone in hands-free mode.
Johnson’s blood alcohol concentration was between 120 and 170 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood at the time of the collision or between 1.5 and two times the legal limit.
Video surveillance played at the sentencing hearing showed him speeding eastbound through the intersection of Markham Road and Progress Avenue, losing control and leaving the roadway. An analysis of the car’s black box determined the vehicle was travelling at 151 kilometres per hour and accelerated to 162 kilometres per hour 1.5 seconds before the crash.
The speed limit along Progress Avenue is 50 kilometres an hour.
Defence lawyer Adam Newman argued that his client was depressed and attempting to take his own life at the time of the crash and therefore should receive a reduced sentence because mental health played a role in the commission of the offence. He suggested four years or less in a penitentiary would be appropriate.
A report from a psychologist who interviewed Johnson was entered as evidence during the sentencing hearing. In that report, Newman said Johnson told the psychologist, “He was fighting with his wife. He became inflamed and felt he couldn’t go on any longer and as a result, took the actions that he did.”
Crown attorney Joshua Levy said a sentence of seven to eight years in prison would be more suitable, arguing that Johnson’s suicidal intentions was not an agreed upon fact.
“His moral culpability is high. Mr. Johnson got into a car and drove while impaired. Assuming you accept his argument was to kill himself mid-conversation with his wife, he would have to appreciate his conduct was reckless. He ended up killing two young men and injuring a third,” said Levy, adding the principles of denunciation and deterrence are paramount.
Levy also read out victim impact statements written by parents of the three victims.
Rixin Zhu and Quilan Li wrote, “Michael Johnson committed a heinous and inexcusable crime on Dec. 22, 2019 when he drove at high speed onto the sidewalk while intoxicated.” They called it one of the darkest days of their lives.
Since then, they said they both suffer insomnia, deteriorating health and have had to stop working. Due to their son Jun Jie’s excessive use of painkillers to treat constant headaches from the head injuries he sustained, he has a poor appetite and a compromised immune system. The parents also said he is depressed.
A victim impact statement from Damir Kussain’s mother Gulzhan Bukharova who lives in Kazakhstan was also read out.
Bukharova wrote, “The worst thing in this life is when parents bury their children.” She also called for Canada to forbid drivers from getting behind the wheel even with the smallest dose of alcohol in their blood.
Johnson, who told the court, “I know there is nothing I can say or do to stop the pain … and I will never forget all the damage I have done” will be sentenced in July.