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Tragic saga ends with driver's freedom

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published May 18, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Bruce Murakami lost his wife and daughter to a car crash in 1998 and went on to form the Safe Teen Driver program with Justin Cabezas, the man responsible for their death. Murakami stands at the scene on Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa.

TAMPA -- Five years ago, Bruce Murakami had tears in his eyes as a judge granted his wish to sentence the young man who killed his wife and daughter to probation instead of prison.

He returned to the same courtroom on Thursday with a new request: Please let the young man get on with his life.

Again, the judge agreed. Again, Murakami's tears came as he relived a bittersweet legal journey.

The young man, Justin Cabezas, got his 10-year probation closed out at just less than five. He and Murakami left the courtroom for the last time, together and smiling.

Cabezas was 19 when he decided to drag race in a rented car on Hillsborough Avenue. The race ended in a fiery crash that took the lives of Murakami's wife and 11-year-old daughter.

Prosecutors initially declined to file charges against the teenager. Murakami spent three years and thousands of dollars to persuade them otherwise. Cabezas was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide in June 2001 and faced 30 years in prison.

Then Murakami, who had imagined Cabezas as "some spoiled punk kid," saw the clean-cut, tie-wearing young man in court. He forgave him and pleaded with Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta to show mercy.

The judge sentenced Cabezas to house arrest and probation, which included 300 hours of community service.

On Thursday, Murakami said Cabezas probably has served about 3,000 hours. The two men travel across the country to speak on behalf of Safe Teen Driver, an organization Murakami founded to warn students about the consequences of recklessness.

A movie based on their story aired last month on CBS. Since then, the men have booked 32 speaking engagements for the coming year. Getting approval from Cabezas' probation officer for each trip would have significantly hampered their efforts, they said.

Prosecutor Douglas Covington didn't object to the request for early termination.

"It's the only success that I've ever seen" arise from criminal proceedings, he said.

Ficarrotta, who has seen Murakami and Cabezas in action, said he was impressed by the good that came from a tragic situation. But he emphasized again how fortunate the younger man was for the older man's compassion.

"But for this gentleman here, you'd have been sitting over there in one of those jumpsuits for a long time," the judge said, pointing at the bench of jail inmates. "He saved your life."

Outside the courthouse, Cabezas -- now 27, married and awaiting the birth of his first child -- said he does not take his freedom for granted.

"It's something that I don't forget," he said. "I know I got lucky. Really."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified May 18, 2007, 01:06:38]


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