The driver who killed public school teacher Matthew Jensen in a Williamsburg hit-and-run was sentenced in a packed courtroom on Wednesday morning, nearly two years to the day after Jensen’s death.
Tariq Witherspoon, a 31-year-old former EMT, will spend six months behind bars after agreeing to a plea deal with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. Witherspoon was indicted on multiple felony and misdemeanor counts, and pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide.
He will be subject to five years’ probation after his half-year prison sentence.
Witherspoon was cuffed and led out of the courtroom immediately after the sentence was made official in Brooklyn Supreme Court while Jensen’s family and friends looked on.
In the early hours of May 18, 2021, Witherspoon struck Jensen at the intersection of McGuinness Boulevard and Bayard Street, as the teacher was walking home from a family celebration. Jensen had celebrated his 58th birthday just two days earlier.
At the time, Witherspoon was reportedly traveling in a borrowed Rolls-Royce roughly 50 mph — twice the posted speed limit. He did not stop after hitting the Jensen, who taught at nearby P.S. 110, and nine months passed before the NYPD was able to identify and arrest him.
Paramedics arrived on the scene of the crash and found a gravely-injured Jensen lying in the road, and rushed him to Woodhull Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead later that night.
Witherspoon did not address the crowd of Jensen’s loved ones assembled in the courtroom for the sentencing. In a statement read by his lawyer, he apologized to Jensen’s friends and family and acknowledged the “compassion” they have shown him over the last two years, and asked for their forgiveness.
‘How could you leave the scene?’
Jensen’s family, though, directly addressed Witherspoon before his sentence was read, expressing their grief and anger over their loved one’s death.
John Ogren, Jensen’s cousin, said family and friends had gathered to celebrate Jensen’s birthday and Norwegian Independence Day on the evening prior to his death, and remembered the air of joyousness that would ultimately be his last memory of him.
“Matthew was the happiest I had seen him in a long time,” Ogren said.
Hours later, he received the call that his cousin had been killed and left in the road — a fact made more unfathomable by Witherspoon’s job as an EMT.
“I have so many questions for you,” Ogren said. “How could you leave the scene? How could you do this? One of the most devastating moments of my life was finding out what you do for a living.”
At the time of the crash, Witherspoon was working as an EMT with the FDNY. He was placed on unpaid leave last year after his arrest, and resigned from his position in February, according to the FDNY. He had previously been sued multiple times for hitting motorists and a cyclist while driving a city-owned ambulance.
“My memories of Matthew are vast and deep and almost too painful to reach,” said Jensen’s older sister Pamela. “My memories of him are accompanied by the image of him dead in the road.”
That image follows her when she wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night, Pamela continued, and comes to her mind whenever she is walking on the sidewalk and hears a car come speeding down the road.
“May god forgive you, because I can’t,” she told Witherspoon.
For some, the sentencing did not bring the sort of closure they had hoped for.
“Of course, the sentence is not sufficient for the crime,” said Lisa Summa, a longtime friend of Jensen’s. “I feel that six months is nothing for someone who has had other offenses, also could have probably helped Matt because he was an EMT. It’s really been devastating for us.”
Pat DeMaio, who met Jensen in high school 42 years ago and shares a birthday with him, said true resolution will not come in the courtroom — the legal system can only do so much.
“I found that I didn’t care very much about this person and what happened, because nothing is going to change this loss,” he said. ”I do think he should go to jail, I do think he should spend his life as a convicted felon. But the focus has always been on Matt.”
Jensen’s death kick started an impassioned campaign from the neighborhood to redesign the infamously dangerous McGuinness Boulevard, which has seen hundreds of crashes and dozens of injuries and deaths in recent years.
Earlier this month, the city unveiled its plans to cut out vehicle traffic lanes and install new crosswalks and other pedestrian safety measures. At Bayard Street, where Jensen was killed, new protected spaces will give cyclists and pedestrians a safer way to cross the road while hopefully slowing drivers turning onto the BQE.
“It’s a design, maybe, that could be helpful, but the behavior of the driver is what this all came down to,” DeMaio said. “The fact that he was an EMT that mowed somebody down and left the scene — the violence of the end of Matt’s life is a hard thing to deal with.”
Jensen remembered as ‘legendary’ teacher, loving friend and brother
As Jensen’s friends and family stood outside the courtroom, they recalled their favorite memories of him, as well as the difficult ones.
Jensen was a dedicated letter-writer and a great cook and baker, his loved ones said, and is remembered by his former students at P.S. 110 as a “legendary” and beloved teacher. He frequently wrote about his students and his work in his missives.
One of Summa’s fondest memories of Jensen is of Thanksgiving 2019, when he offered to come over the night before the meal to help her prepare.
“He came over, he chopped everything, cut everything, set my dining room table, and then came back the next day with soup. That’s just who he was,” she said. “He said we’d make it a tradition, that he’d come every Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but, of course, the pandemic hit and then he was killed. So it was just the one time we got to do it.”
He could also be, as John said, “an a–hole.”
“Matthew could get under my skin like nobody else. He knew exactly where to go,” Paul said. “We were inseparable before I went to school. There weren’t three years between us. He knew everything … He was the person I knew best, and he was the person who knew me best. There is a gaping hole in my consciousness that will never be filled.”
Kimberly Helsing described Jensen as her best friend and “half my heart.” He made a point to connect with people, she said, to find something to bond with them over wholeheartedly. Jensen’s death was her first “big loss.”
“People are telling me, ‘It’s going to get better, you’re going to move on,’” she said.”I don’t want to. You live your life with gratitude, and love, and fulfillment, and you live it the way Matty would want you to live it. He would want me to be living my life, I firmly believe that. But it’s living with half a heart. And it’s OK.”