Torrey Pines student convicted of drunk driving speaks out
In his first public statement since being sentenced for driving under the influence of alcohol and gross vehicular manslaughter in connection with the death of fellow student Alex Capozza, a former Torrey Pines High School student said not a day goes by when “I don’t think about Alex and his family.”
In a clear, steady voice, Branden delivered about an eight-minute speech to North County high school students participating in the ninth annual Youth in Court Day on March 5 in the North County Courthouse in Vista.
Branden’s presentation, one of many that day, was titled “Drunken Driving Disaster.” It was held in the courtroom of Judge Joan P. Weber, who ordered that Branden’s last name be withheld, even though he is now 18 and no longer a minor.
About 100 students sat in rapt attention as Branden told of the car crash that killed his friend on a dark stretch of narrow, winding road in Rancho Santa Fe.
“I’m here today to tell a story that changed my life,” Branden began. “I’m not here to be a mom or a dad, to preach or lecture you about drinking and driving. I’m here to tell you my story.”
Branden described a formerly idyllic life. “Honestly, I had everything a teenager could ask for,” he said. “My future looked bright. It was my senior year and I had everything going for me. With one bad decision, I lost it all.”
In the early morning hours of Oct. 4, Branden said he and four friends left a party where he had been consuming alcohol.
“I was the driver — the worst decision I ever made and will ever make in my life,” he said. “We got two miles away from the house when I crashed and flipped my car. My good friend died that night at the scene of the accident, and another friend was seriously injured. I still cannot get that night out of my head.”
Branden told his audience that he takes “full responsibility for what happened that night” and that he can’t change the past, “but hopefully by talking to you guys today I can change lives in the future.”
Branden described his time in custody, first in the Kearny Mesa juvenile hall detention facility. “There, I was stripped of all my belongings and issued county clothing,” he said. “I was given a faded orange-colored shirt, mismatched socks with holes, blue sweat pants and a tan pair of underwear that used to be white.”
In a maximum security unit, Branden was surrounded by hardened criminals. “When I walked into the unit, I was stared down by everyone,” he said. “I was the only white kid. I was called white boy and teased about being fresh meat.”
He said the first months were the worst. “I was scared, lonely and depressed,” he said. “I could not stop thinking about my friend and his family. I’ve never cried so much in my entire life. I had and still have nothing. I have no cell phone, computer, personal belongings of any type ... and no friends.”
After sentencing, Branden said he “was cuffed by my wrists and shackled by my ankles and taken to Camp Barrett. They called it ‘Camp’ Barrett so the juvenile jail system doesn’t sound so terrible.”
He described Camp Barrett as a jail “surrounded by 20-foot-tall razor-wire fences with 20 officers patrolling 150 detainees 24/7. In jail, you have zero privacy. You are being watched by an officer and camera when you eat, sleep, go to school, use the restroom and even take a shower.”
Branden said he feels like a controlled robot.
“My life has changed dramatically,” he said. “Through my incarceration, I have realized what I took for granted. Every day I wake up on my small little bunk and I thank God for giving me a second chance at life.
Branden told the students, who sat riveted in their seats, that they had choices in their lives. “I have no choices to make because of the one tragically horrible decision I made to drink and drive,” he said.
He asked the students to “think about the decisions you’re going to make, what affects your life and the lives of others forever” the next time they decide to go out with friends.
“I feel terrible for what I have done,” he said. “I’ll be paying for the consequences of drinking and driving, and killing my friend, for the rest of my life.”
After Branden’s speech, he took questions from listeners, one of whom asked if he had contacted the Capozza family.
“I wrote a letter to them a couple of weeks after I was put in jail, and I talked about how I felt,” he said. “I would like their forgiveness, but I would never expect it ever for what I’ve done to them.”
Branden admitted to driving drunk before, twice he said, the judge noting that not being caught adds to a sense of invincibility. “I thought that,” he said. “I never thought it could be me. I never thought I’d be the one.”
In jail and alone, “you have to grow up way faster than you’d ever want to,” he said.
When a questioner asked if anyone else in the car was in a better position to drive, he replied, “I was the most sober, but there’s no such thing as the ‘most’ sober.”
When Judge Weber asked if he thought his case had had an impact on his TPHS friends’ behavior regarding drinking and driving, he said, “I think my case had a huge impact.”
Branden said traditional drug and alcohol awareness presentations given at high schools are not very effective. “As a high school student, I think it just goes in one ear and out the other,” he said.
A program that featured a teen jailed for drunk driving would have a significantly greater impact, he said.
San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Aimee McLeod was the prosecuting attorney in Branden’s case, which ended with his incarceration at Camp Barrett Youth Correctional Center in Alpine for 547 days, the maximum allowed. He is scheduled to reappear in court Dec. 9, one year after sentencing, for possible early release.
Branden was 17 at the time of the offense and was charged as a juvenile. Had he been 18 or older, he would have been tried as an adult and could have faced up to 10 years in state prison, she said.
Robert Grimes, Branden’s defense attorney, also spoke to the students, saying drunk driving is a crime that “turns a solid citizen into a felon in a split second.”