Drunken driver's term of 6 months draws fire

September 25, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Just as Deborah Hartman -- an almost-deaf mother of two -- was beginning to pull her life together, a drunken driver took it all away.

More than a year after Ms. Hartman, 27, was struck and left for dead along a Hampstead roadside, the woman who hit her is spending nights in the Carroll County Detention Center for the next six months.

"This just doesn't make any sense," Doris Hartman, Deborah's mother, said of the sentence imposed two weeks ago on Mary Ann Lamar-Lang. "Six months? My daughter's life isn't worth [only] that much."

Not that Ms. Lamar-Lang, 56, went unpunished. As part of a deal approved by the court Sept. 12, she pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident involving death.

Carroll Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold sentenced her to two years in state prison -- the maximum she could receive -- then suspended all but six months of the term. He allowed her to serve the time at the county jail and to participate in the work-release program.

"In this case, as in all cases, we looked and examined all the facts," said Deputy State's Attorney Edward M. Ulsch, who decided not to pursue auto manslaughter, which carries a 15-year term, or homicide by motor vehicle while intoxicated, with a five-year term.

"When we looked at it, we simply did not have probable cause to charge anything more than we did," he said.

As dusk approached on Sept. 10, 1993, Deborah Hartman was walking home after making a withdrawal from her bank in Hampstead. She was dressed in a pair of jeans and a dark sweat shirt, and, as was her habit, she walked with the traffic.

She turned up Fairmount Road, a winding path toward her mobile home.

At the same time, Ms. Lamar-Lang was on her way home from the Sunset Lounge in Hampstead. She had celebrated the end '' of her barmaid shift with a couple of drinks, court records show.

Felt a thud

Ms. Lamar-Lang felt a thud as she drove her Chevy truck along Fairmount Road, court records say. She told police she thought she had hit a deer.

She drove home, leaving Deborah Hartman on the side of the road. Ms. Hartman died less than two hours later at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

When state troopers found Ms. Lamar-Lang at her trailer -- which is minutes from the accident scene -- she "displayed all the classic signs of intoxication: slurred speech, watery eyes, flushed face and a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage on her breath," Tfc. John Carhart wrote in his report.

Ms. Lamar-Lang declined to take a breath test, but was compelled to submit to a blood-alcohol screening once troopers learned of Ms. Hartman's death.

It came back 0.17 percent, nearly twice Maryland's legal limit of 0.10 percent.

For Ms. Hartman, the pain of losing her daughter -- the youngest of her three children -- hasn't diminished in the past year.

Shortly after she was born, Deborah Hartman began losing her hearing. She attended the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick and learned how to "get along quite well" in the world, her mother said. She graduated in 1984.

Last year, she and her two children -- 5 and 6 years old -- moved out of her parents' house and rented a trailer on their own.

L She had a dream of entering nursing school, her mother said.

"She wanted to make things better for her kids, she really did," Doris Hartman said. "She really kept struggling."

The walk from the bank to her trailer last Sept. 10 wasn't at all unusual for Deborah Hartman: She didn't own a car and, her mother said, she viewed the daily jaunts as a form of exercise.

"She would always walk," Doris Hartman said. "It was just timing. If only [Ms. Lamar-Lang] had left the bar a few minutes earlier."

Doris Hartman isn't the only one shocked at Ms. Lamar-Lang's sentence.

'Par for the course'

"This seems pretty much par for the course," said Roger L. Schultz, a 61-year-old Hampstead man who became president of Carroll's chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in July.

"By being kind to the criminal and being indulgent, we actually encourage drinking. We almost treat it as a light thing. Here, someone's life is taken away, and it's treated like it's not a nice thing to do, so we'll just inconvenience you a little bit."

Under Maryland law, the most severe penalty a judge can impose on a first-time drunken driver is a year in prison. The maximum penalty for leaving the scene also is a year.

And since prosecutors didn't charge Ms. Lamar-Lang with manslaughter or homicide by automobile while intoxicated, there was little leeway in giving punishment.

Judge Arnold could not be reached for comment. Attempts to reach Ms. Lamar-Lang and her lawyer, Jay I. Block of Owings Mills, were unsuccessful.

Victim was 'at risk'

Mr. Ulsch, the prosecutor, said several factors went into his decision on how to charge Ms. Lamar-Lang. He said the victim was wearing dark clothing, walking on the wrong side of the road and was also hard of hearing. He said that even if Ms. Lamar-Lang had not been drunk, Ms. Hartman was at risk of being struck.

"If you think about a life and the maximum sentence is two years, it doesn't -- it can't -- compensate," Mr. Ulsch said.

For Mr. Schultz -- who lost part of his left leg to a drunken driver two years ago -- Ms. Hartman's death should be a wake-up signal to a society in which drunken driving has killed 250,000 people and hurt 6.4 million in the past decade.

"People who are honest and hard-working are fundamentally offended at the legal games," he said. "When we are kind and gentle to the perpetrators, we wind up being unfavorable to ourselves and our posterity."

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