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Joseph Beer sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison, says four victims in Southern State crash 'were like brothers'

Joseph Beer leaves the Nassau County Courthouse in

Joseph Beer leaves the Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola after being sentenced on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The 19-year-old survivor of a Southern State Parkway crash that killed four of his friends begged their families for forgiveness Tuesday before a judge sentenced him to 5 to 15 years in prison.

Joseph Beer, who previously admitted being impaired by marijuana when he got behind the wheel, said he felt "unbearable guilt and shame" for the crash on Oct. 8, 2012.

"I will have to live with myself for the rest of my life knowing that I killed these four young men who were like brothers to me," Beer, of South Richmond Hill, Queens, said in Nassau County Court.

His passengers -- Neal Rajapa, 17, and 18-year-olds Peter Kanhai, Christopher Khan and Darian Ramnarine -- all died at the Lakeview crash scene. The teens were childhood friends from Queens.

Prosecutors said during Beer's trial that a reckless mix of "speed and weed" made him lose control of the Subaru Impreza he was driving without a license.

Sharon Rajapa, the mother of victim Neal Rajapa, spoke at Beer's sentencing, then broke down in tears outside court.

"I don't think he's sorry. . . . But I have to forgive him to move on," she said.

"I never knew what a bullet feels like, but on Oct. 8 I knew when a bullet hit my heart," she added, calling on Beer to step up and live a responsible life after prison.

"My son cannot be here to live his life, to get married, and to do all the fun stuff," Rajapa said.

Bryant Barr, the longtime companion of the mother of victim Peter Kanhai, said the crash was a tragedy for all the families involved, including Beer's.

"People can learn from it," Barr said, standing with Kanhai's mother and grandmother outside the Mineola courthouse. "There are other people out there that are thinking just like Joseph was, and you will get caught."

Jurors convicted Beer of manslaughter charges in June, but deadlocked on charges related to whether he was drug-impaired at the time of the crash.

Beer pleaded guilty to the top count of aggravated vehicular homicide in July, with prosecutors agreeing to a sentence of 5 to 15 years in prison. Beer would have faced up to 25 years if found guilty of that crime at another trial.

Defense attorney Todd Greenberg said Beer now will be eligible for parole in about three years. During the trial, Greenberg argued that while Beer smoked pot before driving, the level of the drug's active ingredient in the blood of a chronic marijuana user like Beer isn't a good measure of impairment.

The Forest Hills lawyer told Nassau County Judge David Sullivan Tuesday that Beer has shown extreme remorse, and asked him to sentence his client -- who was 17 in October 2012 -- as a youthful offender. Greenberg said that would have erased Beer's conviction record and limited his incarceration to a maximum of 4 years, but the judge rejected the idea.

The attorney said afterward that Beer plans to appeal.

"Of course we're disappointed. But yet, as a man, he stood up there; he understood that his conduct was wrong. He understands his errors of that night, and he wants to urge other people not to do that," Greenberg said.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Bushwack argued against youthful offender status, saying Beer hasn't shown he's sorry and bragged during a recorded jail phone call that he'd be famous when he got out.

Sullivan said Beer never showed remorse or compassion during the trial, and his punishment after one of the most horrific crashes in Nassau history should be one that deters others from driving under the influence.

"I hope what he said today was sincere," the judge said of the four-page, handwritten statement Beer read aloud in court.

In his remarks, Beer said he hoped one day "to make the world a better place, to be a productive member of society, and to be an advocate against reckless driving and against intoxicated driving."

Speaking for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Maureen McCormick, chief of Rice's Vehicular Crimes Bureau, said the sentence sends a clear message: "If you are old enough to drive, you are old enough to bear the criminal consequences of the decisions that you make."

Excerpts from the letter Joseph Beer read in court

To the victims' friends and family:

"I know these words will be of little if any consolation to all the pain and grief that I have caused you. But hopefully they can help me cope with the unbearable guilt and shame that I feel. I know there is a lot of anger and animosity in this room. All of it is warranted. For I have committed a horrendous crime. I am responsible for the deaths of four young men."

On the emotional toll:

"I know I can never begin to comprehend all the pain and suffering which resulted from my irresponsibility and thoughtless actions. I do know that the emotional anguish must be unbearable at times. For I too mourn the loss of my friends. I too hate myself for what I've done."

On forgiveness:

"I hope one day the families will find it in their hearts to forgive me. Me personally, I don't think I will ever be able to forgive myself for the stupid decisions I've made which ultimately led to the deaths of four of my closest friends. Knowing what I know about life today, about how precious every moment is, I would give it up in a heartbeat if it meant my friends would still be alive today."

On drunken driving:

"Driving while intoxicated by alcohol or drugs is a serious epidemic in this country. The loss of lives which result from these senseless decisions are completely unacceptable. ... I hope in the future awareness is raised and lives are saved. These roads are dangerous enough as is without the addition of inexperienced drivers and intoxicated drivers."

On the future:

"I will never ever be able to right the wrongs I've done. I do hope one day to make the world a better place to be a productive member of society and to be an advocate against reckless driving and against intoxicated driving. I feel I owe that in the least bit to my friends and to all of the future generations to save as many lives as possible from these senseless deaths."

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