Judge bares heart in sentencing in case of vehicular homicide

John Thompson • May 7, 2014 at 9:14 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The sentencing hearing for Micah Cates on Monday provided a rare glimpse into the heart and mind of Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who is familiar in the region because of the many high-profile cases he has tried but is the least-known judge in the area because he comes from downstate to try cases.

In March, a Carter County jury found Cates guilty of vehicular homicide by intoxication in the death of Tanner Perkins.

Testimony during the trial said Perkins was a passenger in a car driven by Cates on Aug. 14, 2012.

Blackwood sentenced Cates to eight years in prison. Cates is classified as a standard offender, meaning he will have to serve 30 percent of the sentence before he is eligible for probation. Blackwood also took Cates’ driver’s license for eight years.

Accident investigator Ryan Brackett told the jury during the March trial that Cates crashed his car into a metal sign pole at Milligan Grocery, 1518 Milligan Highway. Brackett said the needle on the speedometer was stuck at 85 mph and the impact was so great the engine was lying 45 feet away from the car.

In pronouncing sentencing, Blackwood called it “a terrible, terrible tragedy.” He addressed the families of Perkins and Cates and told them they need to continue to live their lives as their sons would want them to. He said Perkins would have wanted his family to honor him by moving on with their lives. He told Cates’ family they need to continue to show their love and support for him as he serves his sentence.

Blackwood reinforced his comments to the families with a personal story of a tragedy he experienced as a young man.

Blackwood said he loves history and has many heroes, “but my real hero is my wife,” he said.

Blackwood said he began dating her over 40 years ago and he soon realized he was in love with her. He said she was the third of four daughters in her family. The two oldest daughters were very close and his girlfriend and the youngest daughter were equally close. He said the two youngest girls worked in Nashville and often rode together on the long commute. One day, he said his girlfriend did not have to go in to work as early, so thee youngest girl left shortly after 5 a.m., riding alone to work.

Blackwood said it had been raining hard for two days and the girl did not know a small bridge she had to cross was out. The car crashed into the gap and the girl’s body was washed away and not found for two days.

Blackwood attended the funeral, but a few days later he got a letter from his girlfriend.

“She told me she was devastated and she no longer wanted to see me. I respected her wishes and never called her back.”

Six months later he had moved to West Tennessee. His ex-girlfriend showed up at his office and asked if he would like to go out with her. He agreed.

During their time together, Blackwood told her he never thought he would see her again. She told him she meant everything she said about being devastated, but as she thought of her sister, she remembered “my sister was so excited when she learned I had a boyfriend. My sister, bless her, would have wanted me to continue with my life.”

Blackwood said his girlfriend returned to him not for a selfish reason, but because she wanted to continue to honor her sister in her life.

He said that was 40 years ago, and told the families he and his wife have had a wonderful life together because of her courage.

Prosecutor Janet Vest Hardin called the judge’s remarks to the families “the most heartfelt comments I have heard from the bench.”

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