A life that was equal parts promise and bad choices kept Justin Miller’s future in doubt.
One last lapse in judgment killed a man, and, on Thursday, sent Miller to prison.
The former Queens University student pleaded guilty to second-degree murder stemming from a fatal alcohol-related crash last year. As a group that included his grandmother, friends, two professors and his college soccer coach looked on, Miller disappeared out a side door of a Mecklenburg courtroom to begin a sentence of at least eight years.
Miller, 24, was first arrested on a DWI charge last April when he and a friend were stopped in Birkdale Village.
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A month to the day later, and driving on a revoked license, Miller plowed into the cab driven by Paul Miller at Woodlawn and Montford roads. Again, Justin Miller was drunk and the same friend was in the passenger seat. Investigators say he was traveling 67 mph in a 35 mph zone. His blood-alcohol level was .19, and Miller was captured by police after he fled into some nearby woods.
Paul Miller, described by a family friend as a man who made everyone smile, was thrown from his cab by the 2 a.m. collision. He died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
During Thursday’s hearing, Assistant District Attorney Anna Greene read aloud a message to Justin Miller written by the dead man’s sister.
“I pray you do a lot of thinking in prison,” Karen Miller wrote, “ ... and that you find something to ground you, a meaning to your life that will save you from ever again acting recklessly.”
When Judge Robert Ervin asked Justin Miller if he wanted to speak, he said no.
Outside of the courtroom, two of his teachers spoke on his behalf.
“This is sad, so sad,” said Catherine Eason, who was Miller’s academic adviser at Queens. “I think Justin is very, very sorry about all of this, and I think he knows he made some terrible choices in life and it led to this.”
Attorney Dana Grigg told the judge that Miller had an unhappy family life. His parents’ marriage ended when he was young, she said, and one day he came home from high school to find his mother and sister had moved to Florida.
At Queens, Miller worked two jobs to pay for school and his living expenses. Eason and colleague Brad Brooks, a marketing professor, said Miller displayed a gifted mind.
But he was also prone to downward spirals. On those occasions, Miller would start skipping classes and fail courses. Several campus violations involving drugs and alcohol led to his departure from Queens, Eason said.
Both instructors said Miller has the potential to emerge from prison with the chance at a productive future.
For that to happen, his victim’s sister said Miller has some work to do.
“I pray you find a way of respecting your own humanity,” Karen Miller told him, “and respect the humanity you share with the rest of us.” Erin Bacon contributed.