A family's faith — and forgiveness — has resulted in a Pottawatomie County defendant's prison sentence being reduced in connection with a fatal crash two years ago in Asher.
Just before Christmas, John and Shannon Hamm, of Spring, Texas, made a trip to Pottawatomie County and sat across the table from the drunk driver now in prison for a DUI-related crash on U.S. 177 that claimed the life of their son, 21-year-old Ryan Hamm.
Ryan Hamm was driving through Asher on his way back to fall classes at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond when that fatal accident occurred on Aug. 10, 2016. Hamm’s northbound SUV was struck head-on by a southbound 2003 Chevrolet pickup driven by Johnny Morton III, who was under the influence of alcohol.
Morton, 27, was sentenced in June 2017 to serve a 35-year sentence with the Department of Corrections on a charge of second degree murder —with 20 years of that time to be served in prison and then 15 years out of jail and on probation.
This month, Morton asked the court for a judicial modification hearing to review that sentence, so his lawyer set up a visit with the Hamm family.
Ahead of that meeting, though, John Hamm, who has relied heavily on his faith since his son's death, said they learned that Morton has completed several sobriety programs in prison and joined the victims impact group and Warriors for Christ, a group that meets each Wednesday.
As part of the sentence modification hearing on Dec. 21, John and Shannon Hamm sat with Morton, where a conversation and so much more unfolded.
“Johnny looked up in tears and said that he has written a letter to us and crumbled it so many times,” John Hamm said. “He confessed he didn’t know what to say and has brought so much hurt to his own family and us.”
Sharing what happened, he said it was obvious to him that Morton was in a dark place and didn't have the words for the pain he caused.
“He kept looking down in shame – we could tell he was struggling with his words and deeply broken,” John Hamm said.
He then asked Morton if he had a son, with Morton telling him about his 6-year-old boy.
“He had him at 20. I shared that I had Ryan at 21,” Hamm said. “I shared that for the last few years, I have been studying miracles. I searched the Bible for answers and read C.S. Lewis,” he said, asking Why didn’t God save Ryan?
“I told Johnny that I have concluded that on that night, the collision was so horrific that both of them should be dead. Johnny’s truck flipped, caught fire, and ejected him on the street. He walked away with a minor head injury,” Hamm said. “There was a miracle that night.”
Hamm said he doesn't understand how God sorts things out. At that point, though, it appeared many things were unfolding as Hamm shared his forgiveness.
“I told Johnny that I had forgiven him — he broke down in tears,” Hamm said.
Hamm said Morton left the room and the next hour or so was full of emotion and discussion with District Attorney Richard Smothermon.
“God was in that room, we all felt it,” Smothermon said. “For that level of forgiveness and mercy for the man that took their son’s life, there simply is no other explanation.”
Hamm said he and Shannon asked themselves many questions about forgiveness, justice and consequences, and even wondered if Morton was being genuine. They even considered what Ryan would want.
“Shannon and I were moved by Johnny's own actions and apologies. Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “We looked into his eyes, heard his story, and looked at his family — whom filled three rows in court.”
As part of their desire for modification, he said Smothermon worked with them on a program best structured for Morton to recover — five years in prison, followed by six months to a year of in-house alcohol treatment. With the Hamm family giving their blessing, Morton's sentence for his time behind bars was set to be reduced by 15 years.
As things progressed back in the courtroom, Hamm said the judge indicated he had never modified a murder case to this degree and called the case a true Christmas miracle.
Rather than having a 35-year term with 20 years in prison and 15 years on probation, the sentence was modified to be 20 years with the Department of Corrections, with 5 years to be served in prison and then 15 years out on probation.
Morton, who has served just over a year with the Department of Corrections, still has several years of incarceration, but then he must go through the mandatory six-month in-patient alcohol treatment and rehabilitation, according to the court's modification.
“I feel like the DA and judge kept the best interest of protecting Oklahomans, while implementing a plan with the best possible chance of Johnny building a relationship with his son and contributing to society,” John Hamm said. “Ultimately, it is between him and God.”
After the modification, John Hamm said Morton turned around in the courtroom and looked at them with tears in his eyes.
“Johnny walked back to us, shackled at the hands and feet,” Hamm said. “He reached out and held Shannon’s hand as she was deep in tears. He told her he would not disappoint her.”
Shannon pulled out her iPhone to show Morton a picture of their family and told him that's why they agreed to the sentence modification.
John Hamm said Shannon looked him in the eyes and said, 'I want a letter from you every year for the rest of your life telling us how you became something.'”
All along, Hamm said their intention the day of the modification hearing had been to make sure the judge upheld the original sentence.
“But there was so much more that happened that day. So many signs, small quirky details, genuine moments...,” Hamm said.
“Ryan is gone, we love and miss him so much,” Hamm said. “We pray that Johnny can get out of prison while his son is young to make an impression in his life and that he continues his faith walk and lives a great life.”
And Shannon Hamm hopes Morton writes them yearly as promised.
“Johnny’s life is between him and God now,” John Hamm said. “We are at peace.”