With permission from the Burke family, I am posting the family’s statement to the the court during the Burke sentencing hearing that took place at 11:30 am this morning, October 18, 2011.
The Burke Family
Victim Impact Statement
By Paul Burke
Eight months ago I gave a eulogy to celebrate my brother’s life. Although Matt’s time on this earth had been cut cruelly short, there was so much to celebrate from Matt’s journey through life. Matt’s days had been filled with adventure, achievement, and love. Matt was a vibrant spirit and, more importantly, he was a mensch.
Today I address this court not to eulogize my brother but to speak on behalf of Matt’s wife, daughter, siblings, parents, family, and friends about the impact of the crime that caused Matt’s premature and undeserved death. This task is much harder. For we can never truly know–we can only imagine–how much was taken from Matt and how much has been taken from us by this crime. Our lives have been lessened by Matt’s loss in ways we will never know.
Last October 1st, on a long, flat, straight road in broad daylight, Mr. Johnson slammed into Matt and four other cyclists with his speeding Dodge Durango. This violent collision caused mortal shearing in Matt’s brain. And the crash created a permanent shear in time for our family. The consequences of this crime, and the legacy of October 1st 2010, will haunt our family for generations.
Matt’s distinctive voice was silenced by this crime, so he is not here to describe what happened him. But we do know that time slows down for people during emergencies. Neurologists have learned that stress and danger cause heightened consciousness, slowing down the perception of time. Moments of terror can literally be experienced as minutes, and minutes as hours.
This means that Matt was probably not spared from the horror of this crime. When Mr. Johnson’s bumper first impacted Matt’s bike, the bicycle’s rear wheel stopped spinning and the tire exploded like a shot. This explosive sound would have rung through Matt’s ears as he was being thrown backwards first into the hood and then the windshield of Mr. Johnson’s Durango. Matt was next catapulted forward almost half the length of a football field. He tumbled through the air before crashing down on the pavement.
All this would have happened for Matt in slow motion. Though Mr. Johnson was piloting his vehicle at a recklessly fast pace, these moments may have seemed like long minutes to Matt. He probably knew what was happening to him. He certainly knew that he had not done anything to cause this calamity. And he would have been outraged by the injustice of this crime.
Matt survived the initial impact. My brother was briefly conscious after landing, bloodied and battered, in the middle of Beech Island Avenue. Matt tried to do what he had done every other time he had been dealt a setback. Matt tried to get up. But this time, his skull was filling with blood from torn blood vessels, and Matt’s will could not overcome the injuries that had been inflicted upon him. Matt slipped into a coma, and he slipped away from us, within 128 seconds of the crash. It was also less than 128 minutes since he had left home for the ride and told his wife Bonnie that he loved her for what turned out to be the last time.
One hundred twenty eight days later, on February 6, 2011 at Eisenhower Medical Center, Matt took his last breath. But Matt’s life was actually taken from him–and from all of us–on October 1, 2010 on Beech Island Avenue.
Matt was not the only immediate victim of Mr. Johnson’s crime. Four other cyclists were struck and injured by his speeding SUV that day. And every cyclist who was on the road with Matt was wounded in some way by this violent collision, which left Matt bleeding profusely on the road. This scene created painful memories that the other cyclists will carry with them for the rest of their days. Mr. Johnson’s crime also created a climate of fear that spread across the entire local cycling community.
During the 128 minutes after the crash, the news of this crime raced across Augusta, across the country, and half way around the globe. First the news reached Bonnie, who immediately grasped the severity of the situation and put on her bravest face, both to protect their seven-month old daughter and to offer support and hope to Matt. When she arrived at the hospital and first glimpsed Matt, Bonnie was shocked to find that his face was unrecognizable to her. She could recognize him only from the gentle hands that had held her and healed others.
Meanwhile, news of this tragedy had been relayed to Utah, where Matt’s parents and two of his siblings live; to Boise, Idaho, where his brother Ted and expecting sister-in-law Kim live; to Pennsylvania, where Bonnie’s parents and the Burlingame family lives; and to Maryland, where Bonnie’s sister and family reside. The news was also conveyed immediately to Massachusetts and Okinawa to reach an aunt and uncles for whom Matt was almost a son; and also to cousins in Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, and Rhode Island who held Matt dear.
Within 128 minutes after the crash, my parents started their race to Matt’s bedside. It was the longest journey of their lives. Upon hearing the news of the crash, my father went straight from his hospital office to Salt Lake International Airport to meet my mother. The last flight of the day to Atlanta had already departed, so they flew west to Portland and caught a red-eye flight to Atlanta. By the time they arrived in Georgia, their eyes were swollen from tears.
Within 128 hours after the crash, Matt’s extended family and many of his best friends had arrived in Augusta to join the vigil for him at the Medical College of Georgia. Meanwhile, news of this crime, and of Matt’s desperate circumstances, rippled through Matt’s large network of friends, teammates, colleagues, and patients.
Over the 128 days after the crash, Matt received extraordinary care first at MCG and then from his colleagues at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center. These were days of terrible uncertainty. Matt had suffered what proved to be a mortal brain injury, but during the days and initial weeks after the crash, his circumstances were dire but his prognosis was unknown. Together our family held vigil for Matt. We spoke with one voice, and united we faced every heartbreaking milestone during his hospitalization.
When Matt died on Super Bowl Sunday, his wife was holding one of his hands and his mother the other. He was surrounded by his parents, siblings, and loving family.
Although tragically abbreviated, Matt’s life was remarkable, and I marvel at my parents for having raised and supported him. My brother always strove to follow my father’s example and to reach my mother’s expectations. Last year should have been a time for our parents to celebrate the arrival of two grandchildren into their family. Instead, for 128 agonizing days after October 1st, my parents helped Bonnie and the medical teams care for Matt. I shall never forget watching my grieving father, a doctor, leaning over Matt with his stethoscope, while my mother, a nurse, rubbed Matt’s feet and massaged his bedridden body.
It is a crime against nature for a child to precede his parents in death. The crime here was compounded because it condemned my parents–and our whole family–to 128 long days of painful uncertainty, when the compassionate heart knew not whether to hope for partial recovery or acceptance of a merciful death.
Matt’s death has also deprived Ted, Erin and me of a companion through life. Erin lost her biggest brother, and her unflagging champion. I wish Matt were here to wrap Erin in his arms and congratulate her on passing the Utah State Bar exam. Matt would be so proud of her.
Matt would also be thrilled for my brother Ted and his wife Kim, who started their family last November with a precious son. The calamity of this crime came during Kim’s eighth month of pregnancy and she remained in Idaho with her mother. Last October, as Matt clung to life, Kim sent her love and support. Ted wrestled hourly and daily with the decision about when to leave Matt’s bedside and when to return to Kim’s side in Idaho.
Ted and Kim’s son was born on November 15, 2010. Sadly, Matthew John Burke will know only one of the virtuous men for whom he was named. Yet I know that my brother Matt would be humbled by the honor that Ted and Kim bestowed upon him.
Matt and I shared 38 years together. Until this year, I had no memory of life without Matt and I could not imagine my life without him. Born less than two years apart, we grew up together. We went to high school and college together. Three times we cycled across Iowa together. We graduated from competing against each other to rooting for each other. Perhaps most importantly, we earned each other’s trust and respect.
Five years ago I had the honor to serve as Matt’s best man at his wedding, and I know that Matt wanted someday to stand as the best man at a wedding for me. I was so proud to toast Matt at his wedding, and my heart is broken for Matt and everything he lost from this senseless crime.
This crime took Matt’s life—and Bonnie’s best friend, confidante, and life partner. Words are simply inadequate to describe the enormity and magnitude of Bonnie’s loss. Her entire life was shattered the moment Mr. Johnson plowed into Matt. For this crime killed not only Matt but their dreams of a lifetime together, of raising children together, of exploring the world together, and of growing old together.
This crime also sentenced Bonnie to live through the nightmare of the 128 days after the crash. During this terrible crucible, as she tended to Matt and faithfully honored their marriage vows, Bonnie was the epitome of grace and dignity.
Years ago, after Matt first met Bonnie, the very first thing he told me about her was that Bonnie would be an amazing mother. Matt’s judgment about Bonnie was impeccable, and today Bonnie continues to honor Matt as she raises their beautiful daughter, Anna Ryan.
Sadly, Matt’s beloved daughter will know her father only through the memories of others. At every stage of her life, and probably every day, the absence of her father will impact her consciousness. Anna will never know the influence Matt would have had on her life, but it will be our mission to help her understand the depth of Matt’s love for her.
Today is not about atonement or absolution. It is a day of accountability.
It is also a day that seemed long in coming. Our family wishes to acknowledge the efforts of South Carolina attorney Peter Wilborn for his efforts over the last year to help bring justice to this case. We also thank Second Circuit Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr. and his team for fairly prosecuting this case to achieve a measure of justice. We respectfully ask this Court to accept the sentence recommended by Mr. Thurmond’s office.
Mr. Johnson does not live alone with the consequences of his crime. The impact of his crime reaches so far beyond our immediate family. Matt’s service to our nation was interrupted and ended. Never again will Matt operate. Never again will he check in on a patient over a weekend. Never again will he mentor a colleague. Never again will he arrive with a case of beer to help a friend move. Never again will Matt answer his phone to offer counsel, support or advice to his friends and family. Never again will Matt look in Bonnie’s eyes with love. He will never have the chance to learn to fly, or to pursue his many other dreams and ambitions.
We mourn for Matt. We will never know for certain whether, or how much, Matt suffered in the minutes, hours, days, and months after Mr. Johnson struck him. We can never forget the heartache and pain we experienced during Matt’s final 128 days. And for the next 128 months–and the years and decades after that–Bonnie and our family will try to honor Matt by helping to give Anna Ryan all the guidance, love, and opportunities that he wanted for her.
The impact of this crime will endure long beyond Anna Ryan’s formative years. The moment Mr. Johnson slammed into Matt, he caused an impact that will be felt by our family for decades, a century even. This crime has forever altered our family’s path.
Paul C. Burke
Aiken, South Carolina
October 18, 2011
Bike Law founder and bicycle crash lawyer Peter Wilborn has raced, toured, commuted, and ridden his bike daily for fun. In 1998, Peter had a bike tragedy in his own family, realized firsthand the need for lawyers who understand cycling, and devoted his law practice to Bike Law.