December 31, 2009
The Killing Fields of New Year's EveBy Bob Weir
The music was hot, the drinks were cold, and the people were friendly and full of life. Harry Adams headed for the bar in the corner or the room. "Gimme another whiskey and soda," he said, leaning against the wood-paneled counter. "Man, this is the best New Year's Eve party I've been to all year." He grinned as he raised the glass to his mouth. Three large gulps of the amber liquid and the ice was resting against his lips.
"Play it again, Sam," he chuckled to the female bartender, who eyed him curiously as he pushed the glass toward her. The woman placed the drink in front of him and forced a smile.
A man in a three-piece suit came up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Harry, you might want to go easy on that," he cautioned. "You have a long drive home."
"Aw, don't worry about me," Harry replied, taking another swig. "There ain't enough liquor in this place to diminish my driving skills."
The bartender shook her head and frowned as she stuffed a towel in a glass and rotated it.
An hour later, Harry was on the roadway, weaving slightly over the white lines as he watched them disappear under the hood of the car.
A couple of miles up the road, on the opposite side of the two-lane highway, Tom and Cynthia Johnson were on their way home with their two children in the car. Tom could see erratic movements of a car in the distance. Its headlights seemed to be wavering from lane to lane.
"Tom, be careful," Cynthia warned. "That driver must be drunk." She looked over her shoulder to be sure that the children were securely belted.
"I've been watching him," Tom assured her. "The guy's all over the road. I'm driving as far to the right as I can, but there's no shoulder on this road. I just hope he gets control before he gets near us."
Cynthia braced herself as the speeding machine headed toward them. "Tom!" she screamed. "He's gonna hit us!"
Her husband turned the wheel hard to the right, avoiding a head on collision, but the vehicle slammed into the driver's side door, mangling the frame until it touched the doors on the opposite side and crushed the four occupants.
No one survived the crash, and it was recorded as an accident. But was it an accident? Hardly! No more than it's an accident to wave a loaded gun on a crowded street and fire shots randomly. Drinking and driving is a criminal act.
The problem is that drunk-driving criminals are not easy to spot. We don't see their pictures in the post office or in the newspapers. We don't see them on "America's Most Wanted." They're the man and woman next door who appear to be law-abiding citizens, who would never intentionally hurt anyone. It would never occur to them to use a weapon against another human being. That's because they don't see their car as a weapon. Harry Adams was probably liked by all his neighbors and loved by his friends. But Harry Adams was a murderer. His weapon of choice was his car. There are thousands of murderers like Harry from coast to coast. They take the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people every year because they mix alcohol with a ton of speeding metal. We can only imagine how many families will be wiped out during this holiday season. In this scenario, Harry Adams wiped out the Johnson family.
Yet if he had lived, Harry would probably be tried for some degree of vehicular homicide and get off with a short prison term at most. That's just another part of the tragedy. He should be tried for first-degree murder.
Yes, the law says there must be intent to kill for first degree. I think the law is wrong! Harry had intent in every stage of his actions that led to the death of that family. He intended to drink, he intended to drive, and he laughed at the risk. To say that his mental state was reckless or criminally negligent is to give him a built-in defense in the event that his actions result in someone's death. That defense puts all of our families in jeopardy and provides justification for these dangerous people to view their actions as defensible in court.
Harry was a grown man, and presumably, he knew that his actions could kill people. It didn't dissuade him from intentionally engaging in homicidal behavior. It's time to call drunk driving what it really is: attempted murder. If the Johnson family still had a voice, I'm sure they'd agree.
Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas. E-mail Bob.