An auto accident took two lives and began a campaign A Voice for the Victims

June 26, 1995|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

For a long time, Evelyn "Fran" Barrett felt guilty for being alive. She knew it was wrong, insanely wrong, to feel that way. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling. Fran Barrett survived the car wreck. Her husband, Jerry, did not. And neither did her 11-year-old nephew, Jimmy Cianos.

Fran had done everything she could to help save her husband and her sister's son. She had dragged their mangled bodies from the burning pickup truck seconds before it exploded. But Jerry and Jimmy were already dead -- the victims of an accident caused by a drunk driver. Fran was a victim, too, her family told her. No way should she feel guilty.

Fran knew they were right. She began focusing her anger on the driver of the other pickup truck, a young man from Harford County named Sean Hall. And she decided she had survived the accident for one reason: "I was here to see there was justice being done."

And when justice wasn't done; when an admitted drunk driver was sentenced to just 14 months of work release; when Fran and her sister, Robin Cianos, found themselves silenced at the sentencing, the two women vowed to fight.

For more than a year, the sisters waged a tireless campaign to overturn Sean Hall's sentence. They wrote letters to politicians and newspapers. They spoke to other victims. With the help of a victims' rights lawyer, they asked Maryland's appellate courts to order another sentencing, one that would guarantee them the right to speak, to tell Baltimore County Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl what the accident had cost them.

They won. And they lost.

Earlier this month, Maryland's highest court ruled that the state's judges must listen to victims before criminals are sentenced. Judges can no longer simply read a victim impact statement and skip over oral testimony, the Maryland Court of Appeals said.

The ruling was an important victory for Maryland's victims' rights advocates. But the court also refused to order a new sentencing for Sean Hall -- a tremendous blow to Fran and Robin.

"It's really hard to look at the broad picture," says Robin, 41, sitting at her kitchen table in Sykesville surrounded by piles of legal papers. Robin talks quickly. Fran, 40, speaks in slow, measured tones.

"This should have been our right all of the time," Robin says with a long sigh.

The sisters just wanted to tell the judge about their loved ones. How Jerry Barrett was the cheerful type who always had a gang of neighborhood children following him around. How no one could possibly remain in a bad mood around him. How, in his eyes, his wife and their two children, Lisa and Theresa Dawn, could do no wrong.

"Most of my friends liked my parents more than me," jokes Lisa Barrett Getz, now 23. Jerry, who was 39, worked in maintenance for an apartment management firm and was known as "the Candy Man" because he always kept lollipops around for the children.

"He was my husband for 22 years and my best friend for 23 years," Fran says. "I know I was really blessed to have what we had together. Most people go through their whole lifetimes without that."

Jimmy was Robin's eldest son. She and her husband, James, also have a younger set of twin boys, who adored their older brother. He was a happy-go-lucky kid who loved playing Little League baseball and following the Orioles. "Jimmy never did get to go to Camden Yards," his mother says.

She looks at her two children who are rumbling around the kitchen looking for snacks and asking if they can go swimming. "The twins are the same age now that Jimmy was when he died," she says.

Though Fran lived in Parkville and Robin lived in Sykesville, the sisters remained close. Their families often spent time together. This was going to be their first joint vacation: a week together in an Ocean City condo.

Jimmy told his mom he wanted to ride to the beach with his aunt and uncle in their red Mitsubishi pickup. He thought the truck was cool, and there was plenty of room. Lisa and Theresa weren't going.

The Barretts left a few hours ahead of everyone else because Jerry wanted to stop for breakfast and get to the beach early.

They set out in the wee hours of the morning on Aug. 7, 1993. Jimmy was sitting in the back talking to his aunt as Jerry headed south on the Beltway. He was near Sparrows Point at about 2:30 a.m. when he suddenly began shouting. Headlights were coming straight at them.

Fran remembers screaming, "My God, we're going to be killed!" Their truck was hit head on by Sean Hall's 1991 Toyota pickup truck. The Barretts' truck slammed into a concrete barrier and caught fire. Fran lost consciousness for a few seconds.

"When I came to, fires were everywhere," she says, gazing off into space. She lights a cigarette, slowly inhales and blows the smoke out. It takes a while for her to continue talking.

"I turned and looked at Jerry," she says in a monotone. "I saw all of the blood. I was saying 'Wake up! Wake up!' I panicked. I couldn't get out of the truck. I lost it and started screaming, 'Where's Jimmy? Where's Jimmy?' "

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