Published: October 17, 2013 Updated 23 hours ago

COLUMBIA, SC — An undocumented Mexican immigrant received the maximum 15-year sentence for felony DUI causing great bodily injury Thursday morning in a Richland County courtroom.

Santos Gomez, 48, who his attorney said slipped into the country illegally, pleaded guilty and apologized in Spanish just before State Circuit Judge Michael Nettles pronounced sentence.

“I never wanted to cause harm to anybody,” an interpreter translated for Gomez.

Gomez was high on a mix of beer and methamphetamine in September 2012 when his car – traveling at 70 mph the wrong way down I-77 just north of Columbia – smashed into a car in which Alan Martinez was driving, assistant 5th Circuit Solicitor Carter Potts told Nettles.

Martinez, a second-year University of South Carolina law school student and U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, suffered massive body and brain injuries and was in a coma three months.

Today, he requires 24-hour nursing care and “millions of dollars” likely will be spent on his health care the rest of his life, according to people who spoke at the hearing at the Richland County courthouse.

“I’ve never witnessed a more tragic situation than this,” Nettles said.

More than 20 friends and family, including Martinez’s brother Michael, were at Thursday’s hearing to tell the judge about the promise of the man whose life Gomez had ruined.

After terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, Alan Martinez dropped out of George Washington University and got an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy. After graduating from the Academy and serving a stint in the Air Force, he entered USC law school where he became widely known for a ready smile and his community work with local neglected children and animal rights, they said.

A friend, Jacob Raehn, said, “Alan could have become a fantastic attorney, probably a judge one day.” He asked for the maximum sentence.

Michael Martinez, Alan’s brother, read several letters to the judge, including one from a friend, Kelli Wood.

“This man (Gomez) needs to sit away for a long time and think about the life that will now never will be the same,” Wood wrote. “Please put this man behind bars for as long as possible.”

Michael Martinez also read a letter from his father, George Martinez, who is in Florida helping care for his brother. The crash caused Michael Martinez’s house to be foreclosed upon and his mother to give up a thriving law practice so she could help care for him, George Martinez wrote.

“Don’t let this man do this to anybody else,” George Martinez pleaded.

Gomez will be eligible for parole after serving one-fourth the time, said Peter O’Boyle, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council, said the Gomez parole-eligible sentence illustrates tougher DUI laws are needed.

The Legislature needs to revise the state’s DUI law so that a drunk driver who wreaks such physical and financial havoc can’t leave prison after just a few years, Hudson said.

“I would hope everyone – prosecutors, the troopers, family and friends – will be there to protest when this man comes up for parole,” Hudson said. Such protests often help keep a convicted felon in prison, she said.

Lexington attorney Jack Duncan, representing Gomez, told the judge his client feels deep regret about what happened and often has nightmares.

Gomez had left a violence-torn part of Mexico to provide money for his family, Duncan said. At the time of the crash, at 6:30 a.m., on Sept. 8, 2012, Gomez was commuting back to the Midlands from a job site 250 miles away.

“He had a few beers to relax – he drank too much, and he was given an energy pill that unfortunately turned him into a wide-awake drunk,” Duncan said.

After Gomez finishes his sentence, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will pick him up to deport him, Duncan said.

Friends also spoke about the irony of how Alan Martinez, who faced danger in his love for the outdoors as a rock climber, rapids runner and skydiver, was blindsided by a drunk driver.

The morning of the crash, just north of Columbia on Interstate 77, Alan Martinez was on his way to instruct a skydiving class in Rock Hill.

A Facebook site for Alan Martinez is: “Keep My brother Alan in your prayers.”