Offenders Feel DWI’s Personal Impact

ASHVILLE – Penelope Hutton can barely hold back tears.

Sitting next to her is Cheryl Nelson. She’s on the verge of crying, too, and grabs for a tissue on the table.

Both women are sitting in front of three-dozen court-ordered Chautauqua County residents charged with various impaired driving crimes. Some are charged with driving while intoxicated; others are cited for drug use while behind the wheel.

The residents are about to take part in a victim impact panel, held monthly in the county and across the state in similar forms. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor driving while under the influence charge is required to attend. No exceptions.

The panel consists of a non-confrontational presentation from those who have been affected by impaired driving. Hutton and Nelson are the scheduled speakers this night. Both lost sons more than a decade ago to drunken driving.

“Are you on probation?” one man whispers to another before the meeting. It’s a common question in the room.

Most attendees, though, don’t speak at all.

The line entering the Ashville BOCES auditorium is quiet, too. A Chautauqua County Sheriff’s deputy takes names, while another deputy and officer from the Lakewood-Busti Police Department check blood alcohol levels.

Those not a guest of the meeting are required to blow into a breathalyzer. Anyone caught with alcohol in their system is thrown out of the meeting.

No one is found to have consumed this night, although at least one typically is found at each month, said Deputy Jeff Hover.

“You wouldn’t believe who we find coming into here,” Hover said. “We have some that were arrested for a DWI and come here drunk.”

Hover and Ellen Barnes, officer for Lakewood-Busti, also require all cellphones be turned off. Full attention must be given to Hutton and Nelson, they say.

More than 30 residents show up, although 60 are scheduled to be there.

“You are here because the court ordered you to be,” Hover tells the crowd in a booming voice. “There is no sleeping. Full eyes on these ladies.”

As she has since the panel began more than 15 years ago, Nelson delves into her story. She lost her son, Ted, and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Wendy, after a drunken driver hit their car head on in Alabama.

Ted and Wendy were returning from a trip shortly after Thanksgiving and were planning the next stage in their lives.

“We were planning on a wedding,” Nelson says, at times reading from the official accident report. “Now we had to plan for a funeral.”

The woman behind the wheel who killed Ted and Wendy was charged with two counts of murder. Police said she had been driving the wrong way on an interstate when the accident occurred.

The woman ended up accepting a plea offer and served less than five years in prison.

“I’m not saying don’t drink,” Nelson tells the crowd. “I’m saying don’t drink and drive.”

She adds, “I know it must be hard for you to sit here. Well, it’s a hell of a lot harder to be up here.”

Then it’s Hutton’s turn. The Jamestown resident notes she lost her son, Michael, after the truck he was in took a corner too fast in Florida and struck a tree.

The driver of the truck survived. Michael did not.

Both men had blood alcohol levels of .19 percent. Most states have limits of .08 percent when driving.

“There’s no easy way to hear the news,” Hutton says. “I just remember hearing myself screaming very loudly. My son was dead.”

Hutton remembers telling Michael to seek treatment for his alcohol dependency prior to the accident. As a former heavy drinker herself, Hutton recalls telling her son she would attend Alcoholics Anonymous with him.

“I am grateful for the last words we had,” Hutton says. “He said, ‘I love you, mom.’ I told him I loved him, too.”

SEEKING MORE SPEAKERS

Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace has remained a strong advocate of the program, organized through the sheriff’s office. Gerace said the panel is always looking for new members, although he conceded that’s easier said than done.

“It’s very difficult for the victims to speak after having lost a loved one,” Gerace said. “To look back and speak is heartbreaking for them.”

The sheriff believes the program has succeeded in deterring those from driving while impaired.

“This victim impact panel is one of the most proven and effective way to reduce recidivism,” he said. “It’s just very important to reduce drunk driving tragedies.”

Anyone interested in speaking as part of the victim impact panel is encouraged to contact the sheriff’s office. New members, though, ultimately need approval of the current panel.

Nelson and Hutton, meanwhile, said they are getting burned out over the continuous meetings. There are currently only six members on the panel, both noted.

“We’re so tired,” Nelson said. “But once I speak I feel rejuvenated again.”

Said Hutton, “We have these discussions every month. We’re not here to point the finger. We’re here to stop the madness.”