“Without Warning”

My Life As A Pitbull

Excerpt From Chapter One:

Without Warning
Dec. 5, 1977
I was preparing a crockpot dinner for my family in the morning. You know how you remember who likes what for dinner? I added turnips to the beef chunks for my daughter Jane (20) home from college. Mexican hot chilies for my son William(17) and lots of green beans and carrots for Mary Gayle (14) who had decided to become a vegetarian. Onions and peppers for my husband, Bill. I was in a hurry because I hosted a TV program for the local NBC station on Mondays. I looked at the front page of the daily newspaper as I worked. Two teenagers, Karen and Timothy Morris (17 and 19), were hit by a drunken driver in my hometown. Timothy was killed instantly. Karen died within 48 hours. Instead of coming home to dinner, they went to the Ellis Hospital morgue.

Can you imagine having your only children gone forever for no reason? Without warning? No more planning dinners, no grand children, no happy celebrations or shopping trips. A vast void. No child or grandchild to hug.

Stunned, I called the district attorney to ask if the drunken driver had lost his license, or his freedom.

Shock number one: He chuckled.

“No, we don’t take away licenses or put people in jail. This is an accident. He didn’t mean to do it and probably feels very bad about it,” he said. “You shouldn’t get involved in this. I hope that you will tell the victims if they call, that I don’t represent them. I represent the people. If they want to know anything, they should get a lawyer. I hope they won’t be vengeful.” (He was polite because I was a local TV and show host.)

Several days later, Bonnie Morris, the victims’ mother, called me to ask if I could get the D.A. to return her calls. She just wanted to know if the man who killed her children was still driving. She said his secretary told her not to call, and that the driver really hadn’t meant to do anything wrong.

Meanwhile, a church friend, Ruth Kerr, wrote the Morrises a lovely letter of condolence. I took a copy to our church Social Action Council. I asked them for $50.00 to print a letterhead for a new group which would announce (to the media) that the people in Schenectady County had organized to deliver justice in this case. The Council not only granted the money, but also offered a meeting room in the church library for as long as we needed it.

Apparently, I was not the only one interested in this issue. The first community meeting drew twenty local leaders including the city court judge, alcoholism council representative, a Daily Gazetter reporter(Art Clayman), and a few PhDs and church members. There were no DWI victims present. What I thought would be a six-month research project to help the Morris family, would rob all my free time and discretionary funds over the next 25 years. That initial meeting launched a local, state and then national outrage against the criminal justice system and the institutions that are supposed to protect us.

Some people came to the meeting because I was in the media. Some friends came as a favor to me. No one had a clue, especially me, about how to deter drunken driving. But the first speaker, the City Court Judge Griset, cleared his throat and said, “You people should be aware that you might be treading on drunk drivers’ rights by calling the D.A. or publishing letters. The first thing you need is a lawyer, in case you face a lawsuit. Also, I don’t plan to say another word with a reporter in the room.”

That statement cast a pall over the next hour. I asked the reporter to put away his notebook so that we could talk frankly without being quoted publicly. He obliged. I suggested that we form a court-watching group, and publish the sentencing policies of the various judges. We could comment on the effectiveness of the current DWI (driving while intoxicated) law using specific cases as examples, such as the Morris case. A lawyer friend volunteered to call the D.A. to ask for a Grand Jury date to consider charging the defendant in the Morris case with criminally negligent homicide. Currently, killing someone while drunk, was considered an accident, not a crime. I waited for reactions to these suggestions, which were:

“The D.A.’s office has to retain the ability to plea bargain. You don’t understand how plea bargaining works and I don’t think we can set a blood alcohol level at which we would refuse to plea bargain.”

“I just want to help victims of drunk driving, like the Morrises. I certainly don’t want to spend time lobbying in Albany.”

“We can’t change the law. Let’s just work with the system we’ve got.”

“The bills you have in mind will not be supported by lawyer legislators which fill the Codes and Judiciary Committees. Drunk driving is a bread and butter industry for the lawyers. Why beat your head against a stone wall? I’m with you all the way, but I won’t work on dead end lobbying.”

“Most of these drunk drivers are alcoholics; they need treatment, not punishment. You want licenses taken even for first time offenders. That punishes their families. You can’t take a breadwinner’s license.”

“All right. You have just dumped on every tactic we have proposed , so we will help the Morrisses. Let’s get a lawyer pro-bono and ask his advice on how to help the man that killed Karen and Timothy go to jail. We’ll tell the D.A. that we will meet again one month from today, so he will have a deadline to meet. We will announce the date at the next meeting,” I said. (I assumed there would be a next meeting.) We should also elect officers and pick a name for our group; we have $50.00 to print a letterhead from the Unitarian Social Action Council.”

The group dispersed, half of them I never saw again. They were intimidated by the threat of lawsuits or harassment by the defense lawyers. However, one man approached me after the meeting, Dr. Jamie Plumley, a brilliant research scientist from the G.E. Knolls Atomic Lab. He was a tweedy, slightly bent, wild-haired eccentric looking man.

“There is something very rotten in Denmark when a person has to hire a lawyer to research anything. I’m interested. Count me in all the way.”

His wife, Gertrude, and Natalie Yepsen, both pillars of the community, followed suit. We had 3 members!

A few days later, the head of the alcoholism council published a letter in the Schenectady Gazette condemning the spirit and goals of our group. Publishing the names of drunken drivers would further lower their self-esteem, she said. Drunken drivers were very often alcoholics, and sick, she explained. Her organization could not support our goals, which did not focus on treatment for alcoholics. My naivete that every reasonable person would be against drunken driving received a blow, but her letter had the effect of drawing more volunteer activist types to our group, strengthening our motivation to go onward. RID-Capital District now had 40 members.

This woman’s husband was the executive director of the public television station, WMHT. He was instrumental in keeping our group, which we named “Remove Intoxicated Drivers” (RID) off his station. Twenty years later, the blackout of RID on public television was still in place.

Fortunately, the D.A. obliged by setting a Grand Jury date the day before the next meeting was scheduled. The Plumleys, Natalie (a former volunteer lobbyist for CPL – a women’s rights group) and I set out to review court docket books in the Capital Area. We went to the local magistrate courts, which the police had advised me were soft on their DWI arrests. (The Schenectady police chief agreed to have his name as a sponsor of RID listed on our new letterhead).

I learned a lot about public interest volunteer lobbying under Natalie’s tutelage. I learned that all the research, fact sheets, public hearings and task forces, didn’t mean diddly compared to a legislator’s campaign contributions from special interests, balanced with the possible threat of losing his or her seat. Pressure is the only tactic that mattered, and only if that pressure were perceived to come from voters. The hundreds of letters that filled my post office box after our first press conference announcing the start of RID (Feb. 1978) convinced me that the public in general and many DWI victims would help. People were fed up with drunken drivers, but had no organized conduit to carry that message. RID would be that conduit.

The killer of the Morris children pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to 6 months in jail and 5 years probation. He was ordered to pay $80,000 to the Morrises, plus a $500 fine. 21 years later, he still hasn’t paid the Morrises. He moved to Florida.

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