Actor sentenced in fatal crash
They gathered in the hallway outside Department 1 in the Beverly Hills courthouse -- dozens of teenagers in gym shoes and Uggs and sandals, heads bent over their BlackBerries and cellphones, their easy chatter belying the gravity of the event that had brought them there. Many announced it, though, on the T-shirts that bore on the front a silk-screened photograph of Vahagn Setian with his birth and death dates.
On the back it read: “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”
They had come to squeeze into Judge Elden Fox’s courtroom to hear him pronounce sentence on Lane Garrison, the 27-year-old actor who on Dec. 2, shortly before midnight, crashed his Land Rover into a tree on South Beverly Drive near Olympic Boulevard, killing Setian, 17, their Beverly Hills High classmate. The crash also seriously injured two girls, Michelle Ohana and Chen Sagi, both 15 at the time. All were passengers in the SUV.
On Wednesday, the actor, a former co-star on the Fox TV show “Prison Break,” was sentenced to 40 months in state prison. He had pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter in May. His attorney Harland Braun said he expected Garrison would serve 20 months, minus about 91 days already served, but the prosecutor said he thought the actor would serve 85% of the sentence. Garrison was also ordered to pay nearly $300,000 in restitution, most of that -- $257,996.61 -- to Ohana, who was seriously injured.
Garrison could have been sentenced to the maximum of six years and eight months.
The teenagers weren’t the only ones in the courthouse hallway. Along with Setian’s family and adult friends, several dozen Garrison supporters waited as well. The hall was so crowded that those supporters grazed shoulders with friends of Setian, yet all observed a kind of invisible boundary of respect, sharing their fears and hopes only with those they knew.
“This is a horrible day for everyone,” said one of Garrison’s friends.
Once inside, the family and friends of Setian and the friends of Garrison sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. They heard the prosecutor call Garrison an actor who abused his celebrity status when he preened to underage teenagers about his TV work, bought them alcohol and accompanied them to a party.
“A high school party,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Markus said with disdain. “What’s he thinking?”
Garrison met the teenagers in line at a Pavilions supermarket, the prosecutor said. After buying them alcohol, they went to a party where he drank vodka and then went out to buy more alcohol with the teenagers in tow, the prosecutor said.
Markus continued: “Before he gets in the car with these children, he’s asked -- and everyone remembers this -- ‘Are you OK to drive?’
Garrison, in a brownish pinstripe suit, white shirt and tie, furrowed his brow and shook his head several times as he listened to Markus’ assessment that the actor’s judgment was hugely flawed, his character was lacking and his sense of remorse was false.
After the crash, Garrison was found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.2%, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08%, and he tested positive for cocaine, according to authorities.
Garrison filmed a tearful TV public service announcement about drinking and driving -- which did not come into consideration when the judge decided on sentencing, according to a court representative.
Nor did the 3,600 signatures collected by friends of Setian, parents, teachers and area residents urging the judge to hand down the maximum sentence.
Heart-wrenching statements from family members and agonized apologies from Garrison had already been heard at the sentencing hearing in August. But Garrison spoke again Wednesday morning. “This remorse is genuine and I’ve felt it every day,” he said, telling the Setian family “how sorry I am that their son is never going to come back.”
“I think you are ultimately a decent human being who made a very bad mistake,” Fox told Garrison. He commended him for taking responsibility and pleading guilty early in the court case.
But the judge also said that the public “has a right to know that conduct such as this, causing devastation such as this, needs to be punished.”
Outside the courtroom, a gaggle of Setian’s friends who couldn’t get seats waited and checked their text messages for updates from friends inside.
“I want him to get the maximum sentence,” said Seth Sandler, 16, a Beverly Hills High junior. “Regardless of what he gets, living with what he does is punishment. He has a life sentence in my eyes.”
“He should have been the bigger person. He should have been the adult,” said Ariel Assil, a Beverly High senior who knew Setian.
Assil added that the accident has had an effect on some students at the school.
“I think a lot of people became more aware of their lives, the consequences, driving under the influence.” But he added, “Some people still don’t care. There are always going to be people who don’t care.”
Jonathan Pony, a 16-year-old senior, checked a new text message.
“The judge denied probation,” he announced.
“I feel very bad for his family,” Assil said. “I feel bad for everyone.”
The text messages from the courtroom came fast and contradicted one another. But finally, the doors opened and the sentencing decision was relayed. Inside, a friend of Garrison wept and wiped her eyes.
“That’s a lot,” Assil said of the sentence. “But he deserves more.”
In the sunshine outside the courthouse, Michelle Ohana clutched the arm of her boyfriend as she gazed at the crush of media, her wide eyes rimmed in black liner. “I’m just happy he got what he deserved,” the El Camino High School junior said softly.
While Garrison was “a little hopeful” he would get less time, Braun said, the actor was philosophical about it. “He said to me, ‘Look, there was an accident. Someone’s dead. I’m alive. I’m the lucky one.’ ”
Garrison wants to be put in a program to fight wildfires, Braun said. “It’s dangerous,” the attorney said, “but it’s out in the open.”
Times staff writer Jason Song and Times wire services contributed to this report.