Each time he stood before a judge, Jonathan Markle never allowed his emotions to publicly betray the guilt and agony he felt as a father.
That facade melted Wednesday, when he learned that living with his decision to drunkenly drive his family onto the thin Lake Minnetonka ice last January, plunging the SUV into frozen waters that killed 8-month-old Tabitha, was his punishment.
“If there’s a hell on Earth, Mr. Markle, you’re in it.” Hennepin County Judge Jay Quam told the 42-year-old paralegal, moments after finding him guilty of a single felony count of criminal vehicular homicide. “You’ve created it, and you’re already in your own prison.”
Markle said nothing, but wiped his eyes when Quam handed down a suspended 57-month prison sentence and five years’ probation with an important added condition: Markle must tell his story 100 times over those five years. Quam said that would be far more effective than the four-year prison sentence recommended by state guidelines.
If Markle meets the conditions of his probation, he will serve no prison time.
The brief hearing brought an end to the tragedy that began Jan. 18, when Markle took a shortcut on the way home from Lord Fletcher’s restaurant, driving his SUV on the channel between Priests and Halstead bays. The ice gave way, submerging the vehicle. Markle, his wife, Amanda, and their 2-year-old daughter, Isabelle, escaped. Tabitha, strapped into her car seat, remained trapped in the back seat. Tabitha was underwater more than 15 minutes before rescuers freed her. She died three days later.
Police smelled alcohol on Markle at the scene. A blood test revealed an alcohol concentration of 0.13 percent two hours later. The legal limit is 0.08. Markle said at the time that he had drunk two beers. Later, in a pre-plea investigation, he said he’d had as many as eight that day — five or six before he picked up his family and drove them to Lord Fletcher’s.
Markle did not enter a plea on Wednesday, allowing the judge to find him guilty while preserving his right to appeal the legality of the blood test, the key piece of evidence against him. Markle’s attorneys challenged its admissibility, arguing that the blood sample should be thrown out in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed search warrants necessary for blood draws in most drunken-driving cases. However, in an August ruling, Quam said the events of that night justified the need to take Markle’s blood without a search warrant.
‘People will listen to him’
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Deborah Russell credited Markle for accepting responsibility, but said she was “completely shocked” at how much he had to drink that day, calling it “indicative and revealing of a serious alcohol problem” despite his ability to function in his job as a paralegal. Russell recommended probation, along with a year in the Hennepin County workhouse. The prosecutor said she received letters asking for mercy from Markle’s family and strangers alike.
“I think the defendant’s loss far outweighs any punitive measures this court could take,” Russell said.
Markle declined to address the judge, but nodded as Quam emphasized the importance of his story, and how sharing it could resonate with those people who think tragedies like his will never happen to them.
Markle’s attorney, Joe Friedberg, initially asked Quam to withhold imposing the sentence before the resolution of their planned appeal. He withdrew that request, calling the judge’s sentence “very fair.”
Markle, who has completed substance abuse treatment and who is in counseling, has already found an unlikely ally in Jon Cummings, founder of Minnesotans for Safe Driving. Cummings, known for advocating for tough prison sentences against convicted drunken drivers, said he saw something different in Markle after he agreed recently to speak as part of a panel at Cummings’ request.
When Markle told his story, Cummings said, “you could hear a pin drop.” Markle “can make a difference because people will listen to him,” Cummings said. “That’s the last place they ever want to go.”
On Wednesday, as the hearing ended, Markle strode toward his wife, Amanda, the only family member there. Weeks before, she’d given birth to their third child — another girl. The couple embraced and cried, and Markle broke his silence. “I love you,” he said.