Friday, September 26, 2008

Not Just An Accident Part 2 (DUI Loss Entry No. 5)

The other day I was out with two friends, both of whom were a tremendous help to me in the days and weeks after my mom's death, while my dad was in the hospital, and after he died. So they saw what I went through and how hard all of it was on my whole family. One of them told me about going to her nephew's wedding recently. She said she had 3 or 4 drinks over a few hours and was about to leave. Her nephew offered her another drink and she said no, she was driving. And he said she'd be fine. And she told him no, that it's really a hassle to have your license suspended.

When she told me that, I couldn't help myself, I said, "Or you could hit someone because you're impaired and kill that person." And my friend told me about a car accident where another driver merged into her car on the expressway, and neither of them was drunk, so accidents happen even when people don't drink. And I pointed out all the research that alcohol impairs people's driving ability and reaction time. And she just shrugged.

I felt such despair. If people who are otherwise caring and who have seen almost firsthand the effects of drunk driving simply refuse to believe that drinking alcohol increases the risk of a collision, how much hope is there for change?

I am convinced we need greater penalties not just for people who injure or kill others while driving drunk but for anyone who is arrested for DUI. If people knew they would lose their licenses for a year the first time they were arrested, and would lose their licenses forever the second time, that would seem more real to them than the risk of hurting or killing someone or themselves. There needs to be jail time for driving without a license after a DUI, too, otherwise people will just keep driving without licenses.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Sentencing Hearing (DUI Loss Entry No. 4)

The man who killed my parents was sentenced to twelve years. The crime of DUI resulting in the death of 2 or more persons carries a maximum sentence of 28 years. It is an 85% crime, which means the defendant must serve at least 85% of the sentence, unlike many crimes for which defendants only must serve 50%.

My two brothers, my sisters-in-law, and my nieces and nephews came in from out of town for the hearing. A number of my friends attended with me, too. It was a crowded courtroom and a long morning. Other court proceedings took place before ours. I read my victim impact statement, my brother Keith read his, and the prosecutor read my brother Tim's. The defendant's attorney asked me, while I was on the stand, if as an attorney myself I understood that his client had not apologized sooner for what happened because his attorney advised him not to. I said I understood that. I don't handle criminal law, but I assumed that most lawyers would tell their clients not to say anything about the crime to anyone except their lawyer.

The police officers and detectives involved in the arrest for the DUI that led to my parents' deaths were there, as were the ones involved in the defendant's previous DUI arrests. They sat in the jury box. It made me feel better that they were there. I know it probably is part of their job to attend, and yet it still helped me feel that it made a difference that my parents were killed, that people in the police force cared about what happened and wanted to be sure this man could not keep driving and putting other people's lives at risk.

The defendant's attorney played a DVD of a former boss of the defendant who said what a great guy he was. He also submitted a lot of statements from customers of the defendant. He sold and serviced wheelchairs, and possibly other medical equipment, and people said how friendly he was and how he would stop by on his lunch hour and visit or sometimes not charge for parts if the person really needed them and couldn't afford it. It told me he was a good salesperson, but not anything about his character. I don't know what sort of person the driver is, only that he was arrested three times for drunk driving in about five years and he caused my parents' deaths. Nothing else seems relevant to me.

At the same time, our statements talked not only about our personal loss, but about the type of people my parents were. All the volunteer work they did and organizations they belonged to. There were some really nice newspaper articles about them. My parents rarely told my brothers and me while we were growing up that we should volunteer our time or donate to charity or help people out whenever we could. They just did those things and we thought that's what everyone did and so that's what we did, too. It means a lot to me to have been raised with those values.

While I appreciate that we got the chance to talk in court about the kind of people my parents were, I feel sad that so much in our justice system depends not on the crime, but on who the victim and perpetrator are. If two drug addicts were hit by a drunk driver, chances are there would be fewer articles written about it and less outrage about it, and possibly a lower sentence for the driver. Yet the crime would be the same, and the driver would pose just as much threat to the rest of society. It raises the question -- is one life worth more than another? Are there people that we as a culture just aren't as concerned about dying? Similarly, are there people we are less concerned about putting in jail?