Compassion for driver in fatal crash - and accountability

GETTING THERE

August 25, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,gettingthere@baltsun.com

My Aug. 11 column about the death of Charles Stoecker on a country road just south of the Pennsylvania line - and the devastation it caused his family - brought some interesting reaction.

Luke Jackson, 17, who for three years was a hockey teammate of the young man whose driving error led to Stoecker's death in November, weighed in with an especially thoughtful response. There's a thin line between praise and patronizing when a middle-aged man compliments a teenager, but let's just say I couldn't have expressed myself nearly as well at Luke's age. Brandon Boehmer, whose vehicle crossed the double-yellow line and slammed into Stoecker's car, has a good friend.

Luke, a rising senior at Bel Air High, writes:

To begin, I know that part of the reason you wrote this article was to make a point how we can improve the existing driving system, and I was pleased in the way you defended my friend. But, I was disappointed that an article like "Death on a quiet road" would be written and published for a variety of reasons.

First off, the article comes off as if Weida Stoecker, the wife of the victim, wants Brandon - who I know to be a very good person - to be dead. Whether or not she does or not, the article comes off as if she does (I mean, it's not as if Brandon woke up that morning and said to himself, "Whose life am I going to take today?")

Secondly, you fail to mention a serious fact involving this story: since there are still civil lawsuits pending, Brandon may very well not be able to say anything due to his lawyer's advice (I know this because my father is a lawyer who deals with these types of cases on a daily basis.)

My third and final reason why I'm disappointed in this article is that Brandon already feels bad enough. I've been the guilty party of a relatively minor accident due to my inexperience behind the wheel. I know how terrible one feels when he or she gets into an accident, one that doesn't even cause anybody harm. Luckily, my accident didn't harm anyone - Brandon wasn't so lucky. There won't be a day that passes by without Brandon thinking about the accident he had, so is there any reason why an article - with his name in it, no less - has to be published for the entire world to see?

Luke, I thought long and hard about using your friend's name. My decision came down to the principle that if you're old enough to get behind the wheel of a vehicle, you're old enough to deal with the consequences of your actions.

Driving offenses are a matter of public record. Boehmer - now 18 and a legal adult - pleaded guilty to two of them when his case came to court. A police investigation found him to be at fault. In a case involving a death, this newspaper's responsibility to report outweighs any desire to protect a young person from embarrassment. (Disclosure: I have an 18-year-old son.)

Teenagers, when they take up the responsibility of driving, should be aware that if they are involved in a crash, their names can end up in the newspaper. The lucky ones will be those who live to see their names in print.

I'm sure Boehmer has many fine qualities. Otherwise, he wouldn't rate a friend like you. And I'll take your word for it that he feels the weight of his actions every day.

But I've talked to Weida Stoecker, looked in her eyes and heard her talk about the void in her life left by the sudden death of her best friend and husband. There's a level of grief there that you and your friend can't begin to know.

Even so, I don't get hate from her or a desire for vengeance. She's a strong Christian, and her need to forgive is as strong as your friend's need to be forgiven. But it's easier to forgive when the person who has caused you pain apologizes and takes steps to atone. (Telling his story to high school driving classes would be a start.)

Your point about the lawyers is probably correct. But there's no jail time at stake - just the off chance a civil jury would penalize a defendant for apologizing. A client who feels strongly that a course of action is right can overrule lawyers. And be better off for having done so. William D. Roessler, deputy state's attorney for Anne Arundel County, wrote that he read the article with interest because he prosecutes fatal accident cases.

The Maryland State's Attorneys have sponsored legislation for several years which would require drivers in fatal accidents to appear in court rather than be able to simply pay the fine, but the legislature does not seem to be interested. Maybe articles like yours will help.

We have suggested that if a "negligent automobile homicide" statute were passed with a minimal possible jail sentence, at least those responsible for the death would have to appear in court. Other states have such statutes.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but there are committees in Annapolis where bills that any reasonable person would applaud are squelched - usually in the dark of night with no reporters in the room.

By all means, the state's attorneys should give it another go. Ultimately, it's a matter of clout. It's a little harder for a committee to kill a bill when the first name on the sponsor line is that of the House speaker or Senate president.

Behind the scenes, the most effective argument is that a bill is good for the politically powerful defense bar. If you have to show up in court, you're more likely to engage the services of a lawyer.

Incidentally, Stoecker would make an excellent witness. In an e-mail, she expressed gratitude for the column and reported that she's talking with her state legislator about possible bills.

"Anything that I can do to get out the word that speed kills, I will be glad to do," she wrote.

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