Making The Most Of 2nd Chance

CRIME BEAT

August 09, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

Sometimes, a judge's act of leniency reaps rewards.

The person who did wrong takes advantage of the break.

Gets off drugs.

Gives up alcohol.

Completes counseling.

Goes back to school.

Emily Elizabeth Wessel did all those things.

Her reckless driving caused an accident in 2001 that killed a man from Anne Arundel County just hours after he had started a new job driving a truck hauling industrial-size batteries. She pleaded guilty to negligent homicide but had to spend only six months in jail.

Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel gave her a break.

And Wessel knew it.

But unlike so many who pass through courtrooms as often as they get haircuts, begging for leniency even after forfeiting that option by repeatedly messing up, Wessel served her time, broke her addictions and earned an economics degree from American University with a 3.2 GPA.

She started her own business called Urban Artistry to help underprivileged children with dance and arts, and plans to enroll in graduate school to become a counselor to the addicted. She travels to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to talk about her case.

Wessel, who successfully completed her probation two weeks ago, hasn't had so much as a speeding ticket since she ran Vincent Urie off the road on Dec. 10, 2001, while speeding past Elkton along Interstate 95 near the Delaware line.

And she wanted to let Judge Hinkel know that she hadn't let him down.

She wrote him in June, a letter the judge received as he lay dying of cancer at his home in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a letter he was too ill to read himself, a letter his wife Carole had to read to him on his deathbed.

"You had every reason to give me a longer sentence that day in the courtroom, but you chose to take the risk and trust me to use this experience to change my life into something positive," Wessel wrote. "I want you to know that I never took the gift you gave me that afternoon for granted."

She concluded: "You believed in me when you had no reason to and I sincerely want to honor that decision by continuing to live my life being of service to others. As my probation comes to an end this August, I want to assure you that you made the right decision with my case and wish you all of the best in the future."

Judge Hinkel died July 20 at age 77.

His wife said such letters and praise were not unusual for her husband, who believed in handing out stiff sentences but believed just as passionately in getting people help, to punish but also to treat so the same people don't come back again. Carole Hinkel headed the state's drinking and driving monitoring program that started in the 1980s to help offenders kick their habits.

She said her modest husband, who prided himself on never banging his gavel, always enjoyed hearing from people whose lives he had helped change for the better. As she read Wessel's letter, Carole Hinkel told me, "I was the one trying to hold back the tears."

Of the judge, she said, "He just smiled."

Wessel , who is now 29, said the letter was her way of repaying the judge.

The accident occurred when she was 21 and living a different life, addicted to alcohol and drugs and partying all night. "I was young. I just wasn't living right," she said.

She had not been drinking or doing drugs before the crash but did say she had not slept all night before she got behind the wheel of her Hyundai Elantra. She didn't look as she changed lanes, being partly asleep, and veered into the path of Urie's truck, causing it to flip.

It took three years to go from the crash on the highway to sentencing in court.

In the meantime, Wessel said, she turned her life around.

"I had sort of already gotten my life together," she told me. "The criminal part was to make amends to the state and show up to face the consequences. But I had already changed my life because of what happened that day. ... It was such a moment of clarity for me to say that someone had died because of my reckless driving and my reckless lifestyle."

Urie's wife, Dorothy, who lives in Pasadena, has also come to terms with the accident that killed her husband. She first met Wessel in a private room in the courthouse right after she had been sentenced. Since that day, the widow and the woman responsible for the death of her husband call each other every holiday and get together often.

"We all knew Emily was going to have to serve some time," Dorothy Urie told me. "But the whole family knew that we were going to forgive her and let her have another life. She didn't set out to kill anybody. It was a stupid mistake on her part and she needed a second chance. She gave me her word that she was going to prove that she was sincerely sorry."

Urie described her 54-year-old husband as a "wonderful man" who was deeply religious and took a new truck driving job because it meant more money for the family. He wasn't to have started driving for another three weeks, but a driver called and invited him to ride shotgun to learn the route. About halfway through, they switched and Urie took the wheel.

As they drove on I-95, Urie turned to the younger passenger and urged him repeatedly to fasten his seat belt. Finally, the man put it on, just moments before the crash. The passenger hung partially out the cab window of the overturned truck and heard Vincent's last words, words he later told Dorothy, words that described how much he loved his wife and family.

The couple didn't have much money and no savings for retirement, and her husband had taken to the road before he even officially signed the paperwork on his new job. But she got benefits from the employer anyway, enough for her to live on, and she said "everything turned out OK."

She's still in touch with Wessel, and they often think back to their first meeting in the courtroom after Judge Hinkel had given her perhaps the lightest sentence possible.

The two had hugged.

"I was so afraid you were going to hate me," Wessel told her.

"The hatred never came," Urie said later.

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