Victim's family outraged by sentence in deadly Minneapolis crash

The family of a young man killed by a multi-time drunk driver is lashing out at Minnesota’s criminal justice system, demanding stiffer consequences for negligent motorists.

"The sentencing guidelines for criminal vehicular homicide are a disgrace," Cynthia Johnson said in a Hennepin County District courtroom Monday. "How does someone get to operate a motor vehicle after consuming three times the legal limit with no license? Blow through a red light, kill someone, and return to their life as normal in less time than it takes a teenager to complete high school?"

Johnson is Josiah Oakley’s stepmother. Oakley, 22, was killed in a two-vehicle crash at a north Minneapolis intersection last December. He was struck by an SUV driven by Sylvester Vaughn. As part of a plea agreement, Vaughn pleaded guilty to one count of criminal vehicular homicide and was sentenced to a presumptive, guideline sentence of 48 months in prison.

In exchange for his plea, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office dropped a second count of criminal vehicular homicide. The office has said the four-year sentence is the law given the circumstances of this particular case. While Vaughn has a prior gross misdemeanor DWI conviction, he has no prior felony record that could have potentially enhanced his sentence.

"Forty-eight months sure isn't much of a reason for him to do the right thing, and clearly it won't prevent him from doing the wrong thing," said Johnson. "So, there is nothing they can do to help us. The county attorney can't help because of the ridiculous sentencing guidelines. Day after day, people are dying due to a revolving door of recycled drunk drivers released back into the community. There has to be a change. When and where does it end? How many more need to die? And who is going to stand up and say no more? And who do we turn to for justice for Joe?"

A large group of Oakley family members, friends and loved one’s packed the 9th floor courtroom of Judge Carolina Lamas. All of them wore matching blue and gold "Josiah Strong" T-shirts.

"Every day has been tough since you were taken away from us. Not one day goes by, sweetie where I don't think about what happened to you," Sarah Pryor, Oakley’s grandmother said in a portion of her victim impact statement directed directly at Josiah.

Pryor described a "gentle giant" who loved the game of chess. In addition, Oakley had played football and baseball at Minneapolis Edison High School. He was a cherished member of his large, blended family, and was climbing the ladder in the early stages of a career at UPS when his life was stolen.

"If you ask me, I am serving a life sentence without you. And how fair is that? I think to myself it should have been me," Pryor said.

According to court filings, Vaughn had a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit to drive, and he was flying at speeds approaching 90 miles an hour when he ran a red light and plowed into Oakley’s vehicle early on the morning of December 11, 2022.

"I'm sorry to the whole family," said an emotional Vaughn when given the opportunity to speak before his agreed-to sentence was imposed. "I am sorry. I am so devastated. I want to give my condolences to Josiah's family, especially to his mother. I know, I didn't mean to cause you any grief, pain or suffering. My heart goes out to you. I am extremely, extremely sorry for your son's loss. I have no excuse for driving at all."

Despite the courtroom apology, the Oakleys called the consequences for Vaughn’s crime insulting. According to online Department of Corrections records with time already served, Vaughn will be out of prison in less than two-and-a-half years.

"My son's life is worth more than 48 months," said Johnson. "If it was your child, would you accept 48 months? We cannot continue as a society to stick our heads in the sand and allow more innocent people to die."