'My son's life has to count for something'


October 18, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Carolyn White sat on the bloody kitchen floor that night and cradled her son's head in her lap and tried to keep the life from seeping out of him.

''It's Mom,'' she said, frantic for a miracle. ''I'm here, son. Hold on.''

But her son, Joey White, was dying in front of her. He'd been smashed in the head with a tire iron, and then he'd been hit with a shotgun blast, and now there was nothing his mother could do.

''Mom, I love you,'' Joey White said, and then he died.

And Carolyn White looked up from the floor, and she saw her son's murderer, Dan McGowan, as the police handcuffed him and took him away. She thought justice would take care of the rest. She thought her son's life counted for something.

Now she thinks it counts for less than anyone could have imagined.


Joey White and Dan McGowan were friends who'd gone drinking on St. Patrick's Day of 1989. But, on the way home, McGowan drove his car into a curb and blew out a tire.

''I'll drive the rest of the way,'' White said, after he'd put on a spare. ''You're too drunk.''

Instead, words followed, and then fists, and then McGowan picked up the tire iron White had used to fix the flat, and he hit White across the head and left him lying in the road.

Phone calls followed: White called his parents, in North Point Village, asking his father to get him. Meanwhile, McGowan called White's wife, Lisa, and told her this:

''Joey and me had a fight. Send that son of a bitch down here because I'm gonna kill him.''

When White's father took him home, Joey told him, ''I'm going down and settle this with Danny.''

''Settle it tomorrow,'' said William White. ''Please don't go down there tonight.''

But his son was already gone, headed down the block to McGowan's house.

And now, a few minutes later, came another call. William White picked up the phone and heard Dan McGowan say: ''Mr. Will, I shot your freakin' son.''

Joey White was lying on the kitchen floor when his parents bolted into the room. The police were right behind them, alerted by a neighbor who'd heard the shotgun blast. ''I'm sorry, Miss Carolyn,'' Dan McGowan said. ''I didn't mean it, I'm sorry.''


Carolyn White believes McGowan is sorry, but she also believes in fair punishment. Her son's life is over, and McGowan's punishment is about to be over, too.

First, the Baltimore County state's attorney's office allowed McGowan to plea bargain instead of stand trial. Instead of life in prison, McGowan was sentenced to eight years.

A few weeks ago, Baltimore County Circuit Judge John Turnbull reduced that sentence to three years. Since McGowan began serving time last Dec. 13, he'll be eligible for parole in a matter of months.

''I'm not a vindictive person,'' Carolyn White said yesterday, ''but my son's life has to count for something.''

She struggled to hold back tears. This nightmare of a judicial process has left her frazzled. When prosecutors initially told the Whites of their plea bargain plans, the family objected strenuously. The prosecutors said they understood, but they went their own way.

Families deal with emotions; attorneys deal with laws and with case backups, and sometimes the process begins to resemble an assembly line more than a system of justice.

''We didn't do this lightly,'' prosecutor Joan Harris said at the time. ''But the family not wanting it is not a factor. We have to do what we think is appropriate.''

In his sentence-reduction memorandum of two weeks ago, Judge Turnbull said this:

''The court . . . feels 'warehousing' the defendant at the top of the sentencing guidelines is more punishment than necessary.''

Contacted yesterday for further explanation, Judge Turnbull declared his memo ''speaks for itself. I can't say anything more.''

''You can't say anything more,'' he was asked, ''or you won't say anything more?''

''Won't,'' said Turnbull.

He thinks it's not appropriate to say more. A man was murdered, and the killer probably will be set free after a brief time behind bars. A family mourns the loss of a son and feels abandoned by the justice system. These things are deemed appropriate. But explanations are deemed inappropriate.

''It's very unfair,'' Carolyn White said yesterday. ''We have to live with this the rest of our lives -- not just the killing, but the slap on the wrist the killer gets. It's not fair that he shouldn't pay the price.

''You know,'' she said, ''when our children are small, we forgive them but we punish them when they make a mistake, so they won't do it again. One year is not sufficient punishment for taking a life. It just isn't.''

As always, she flashes back to another time, to St. Patrick's Day a year ago, to the kitchen floor at Dan McGowan's house.

''I relive it all the time,'' Carolyn White said. ''When you're sitting on the floor with your son's blood flowing out of him, you never forget it.''

In her mind, though, the criminal justice system already has.

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