OXFORD – Judge Andrew Howorth sentenced John Howard “J.R.” Strickland Jr. to 25 years, with 13 suspended and 12 to serve, on Monday in Lafayette County Circuit Court for causing the wreck that killed two University of Mississippi students.
Strickland pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated DUI for the death of John Wheat. The death of Wheat’s sister, Sarah, was not prosecuted. Strickland’s sentence includes substance abuse rehabilitation, restitution of funeral and medical costs and five years of post-release supervision.
A 21-year-old Ole Miss student from San Antonio, Texas, at the time of the crash, Strickland was under the influence of marijuana and canned air propellant difluoroethane when he crossed the median of Highway 6/278 and slammed his Chevy Tahoe head-on into the Wheats’ small sedan. He had another DUI charge the previous year.
Strickland told Wheat family members and friends, “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done – the pain I’ve caused you, your family and your friends. I wish I was not alive and that John was alive.”
During Monday’s sentencing hearing, the defendant’s aunt, testified that he was “self-medicating” for depression.
Noting they were returning from a charity event when the crash occurred, the victims’ uncle James Zeszetuk said, “It was uncanny that John and Sarah were taken from this life on ‘Make a Difference Day.’”
William Wheat, the victims’ father, said the tragedy is an ongoing agony.
“Between the grief and the rage and what happened to our children, there’s not much room for anything else in our marriage,” he said.
“Yesterday we celebrated Sarah’s 24th birthday,” said Mary Frances Wheat, one of two surviving siblings. “We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ at her grave.”
Frances Wheat, the victims’ mother, said she used to go out alone and symbolically cast the past year’s problems into the Atlantic on her family’s beach vacations.
“I realized this year the ocean just was not big enough for my problems,” she said.
“John Strickland Jr., you are a murderer and a thief. You stole all the hopes and dreams I had for John and Sarah,” Frances Wheat said before asking Howorth to “send a message” by imposing the 25-year maximum penalty.
Howorth agreed the case was compelling but added, “I don’t believe the law allows me to ‘send a message’ for purposes of future enforcement.”
He acknowledged Strickland’s addiction as a disease for which he needs treatment but said the addiction was no excuse for endangering others.
“When you drink or use drugs and drive, that’s not an addiction,” Howorth said. “That’s a crime.”