Hug for my girl's killer

How would you react to the drunk who caused your daughter's death?

Published by: Katie Masters and Marissa Charles
Published on: 4 October 2012

Looking around at my daughter Carmen's new apartment,
I gasped. When I'd helped her move in the day before, it had been a disaster zone - boxes half unpacked, dirty mugs left on the side and her clothes strewn across the bed as she dashed off to a friend's graduation. Now though, it was spotless.
‘Ta da!' Meagan, 20, chuckled. She was Carmen's twin sister, and had agreed to look after the place for her while she was away.
‘I can't believe you've done this for your sister - she'll be chuffed!' I grinned. But then again, Meagan had always been the caring one, even as a child.
I remember once she gave all her pocket money she'd saved up to a boy in her class. ‘But you had a small fortune!' I'd gasped.
‘He needed a new coat but couldn't afford one,' Meagan shrugged. ‘It's how you raised me.'
How could I argue with that?
Now, looking around Carmen's room, I felt the same stab of pride. ‘Let me treat you to lunch, Meagan,' I said, proudly.
Settling down at a local bistro, I told her I was thinking of selling my house. I'd divorced her dad Philip three years before, and was now dating Brian, 37.
‘Anyway, what are you up to tonight?' I asked. ‘I'm going to the beach with Lisa,' she replied, referring to her best mate.
‘Hey, maybe I can borrow that necklace?' she'd grinned, eyeing my silver cross.
She'd always loved it. ‘One day!' I laughed. ‘Will I see you on Sunday for Mother's Day?'
‘Sure,' Meagan smiled, grabbing her bag. ‘Love you.'
‘Love you, too,' I'd said, kissing her goodbye.
I was eating brekkie with Brian the following morning when there was suddenly a knock on the door. My sister-in-law Barbara was outside.
‘There's been a car accident,' she stammered. ‘It's Meagan. She... she didn't make it.'
My mind whirred. What did she mean?
‘She's dead?' I gasped.
‘That's impossible...'
But as Barbara shook her head, tears pooling around her eyes, I knew it was true.
Collapsing to the floor, I doubled over in grief.
‘No!' I wailed.
I just couldn't believe my beautiful daughter was dead. I carried on crying as Brian helped me into the car and we drove to the police station.
‘Meagan and Lisa were driving home at 2am this morning when a Jeep clipped them from behind,' an officer told us. ‘Their car lost control and hit a tree. They were killed instantly.
‘Tests are being done to see if the driver of the Jeep was drunk,' he added.
But, right now, I couldn't
think about that. I had to break the news to Carmen.
Naturally, she was devastated when I told her - she'd lost more than a best friend, more than a sister. Meagan was a part of her, the half that made her whole.
As Carmen leaned over the open coffin the day Meagan was buried, her tears dripped on to her cold cheeks - it looked like they were both crying.
‘I love you, sweetheart,' I sobbed, slipping my cross necklace inside her casket.
A few weeks later, the police called to say that blood tests showed the driver of the Jeep - a 24-year-old graduate called Eric Smallridge - had been three times over the legal limit when he'd struck Meagan's car.
‘He's pleading not guilty to manslaughter,' the officer said. ‘He claims he swerved to avoid another car.'
Rage tore through me. He'd been drunk. How dare he not take responsibility? At Eric's trial the following year, I listened in disgust as several eyewitnesses gave evidence.
‘He was revving his car at the lights, trying to race another car,' one woman said.
‘He'd drunk the equivalent of 14 beers before getting behind the wheel,' a doctor told us.
‘When we arrested him, all he was worried about was the damage to his car,' a police officer said.
I felt sick with anger - I couldn't believe how uncaring this man was.
‘He has to be punished!' I sobbed to Brian and, later that week, Eric was found guilty of two counts of manslaughter. I was relieved - he would get what he deserved.
Eric's sentencing was postponed for three months. We'd have the opportunity to speak at the hearing, and so would he.
I was determined to make it clear what he'd taken from us. But as I wrote the words I wanted to say, my lawyer handed me a letter.
‘It's from Eric,' he said. Trembling, I opened it.
Dear Ms Napier, I would like to begin by telling you how sorry I am, he wrote. I've wanted to apologise for months, but my lawyer has stopped me.
Then, it described what had happened that night.
Eric had only been revving his engine because the car had been jump-started and he was worried about stalling it.
As he pulled away, another car cut him up. Swerving, he hadn't realised he'd hit the girls.
Temporarily knocked out, he'd not spotted their car, which is why he'd only seemed concerned about his own car.
It wasn't until the police were taking his blood later that evening that they'd told him that two people had been killed in the crash.
I beg your forgiveness, Eric wrote. I was touched. Yes, I believed in forgiveness. But how could I when he'd taken my child away from me?
As the days passed by, Eric's words kept going through my head. I was battling with myself.
Somewhere in my heart, I wanted to forgive him.
Slowly, as I sorted through my thoughts, a decision formed. Then, on the day of Eric's sentencing, I stood up to speak. Eric sat to my left, a young man who thought he'd have a bright future... in handcuffs.
I took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. ‘Eric,'
I said. ‘I forgive you.'
The court gasped, and Eric's mouth opened in shock. When he spoke, tears poured down his
cheeks. He said he deserved whatever punishment he got.
The judge sentenced Eric to
22 years in jail - 11 for Meagan's death and 11 for Lisa's.
‘I'm glad he's being punished,' I told Brian. ‘But nothing will bring the girls back.'
So I started campaigning against drink driving, giving talks to high school students.
But six years on, I still felt like there was more I could do.
Something else was niggling at me, too. Eric had sent me cards every year saying he was sorry.
I'd ignored them, yet I admired his determination. So I eventually sent a letter back and told him about the talks.
I want to help you, he wrote. So I went to meet him at the prison. Walking into his cell, I saw shame written all over his face. ‘I'm sorry,' he trembled.
I reached out and gave him a hug. ‘You can help,' I told him.
I'd come to realise Eric was a good guy who'd made one terrible mistake. He wasn't bad through and through. So now, we both talk in schools about what it cost him. We stand side by side.
In many ways, we've formed the most unlikely of partnerships. In fact, we've grown so close, I now see Eric as a son.
That's also why I lobbied for his prison sentence to be cut - he's now due to be released in November and ultimately, I want the best for him.
Our relationship may confuse people, but it works for us.
All I want is for Meagan's death to stop other people from driving drunk. If it does, then at least some hope has come out of this tragedy.
Renee Napier, 54, Florida, USA