Yesterday, I wept at the courthouse. Not because I had to miss class to contest a speeding ticket nor because my officer decided to show up nor because I feared my auto insurance rates would go up. Even though, I had secretly hoped the officer wouldn’t show up, I’m glad he did, otherwise I would not have wept nor learned a lesson.
I would not have wept because my case would have been dismissed early on and I’d have left the courtroom before any of the trials took place. So I stayed and during the first trial, I wept as did many in the courtroom that morning for the loss of man I didn’t know.
Seated around the prosecutor’s table was the dead man’s wife and son. He has other children too and young grandchildren, the youngest, the one he never met, born last December, carries his name. His wife wrote a letter to the judge detailing how the loss of her husband of forty years, her high school sweetheart, and business partner had affected her. She said she felt as if she were missing half of herself.
Her son began to read from the letter until overcome with emotion he handed the letter to the prosecutor to finish reading for him. Also seated around the prosecutor’s table were the court’s translator and the two Latino men who had worked with the woman’s husband and were with him that fatal day.
At the other end of the courtroom was the defendant, a man perhaps in his late forties or early fifties, a retired military veteran and firefighter. His hair was closely cropped and his face red with the emotion of a man trying to hold back tears. While it was easy to feel empathy for those sitting around the prosecutor’s table, I didn’t know what to feel for this other man. But even for him, I can only feel empathy for a man forced to carry his burden.
One rainy day, three men stopped their van on the side of the road to adjust their windshield wipers. Two were outside and one stayed inside the van. Without warning, their van was struck by another vehicle at speed. The power of the impact forced the now deceased man’s head through to the outside of the van. His companions also sustained serious injuries. They have had multiple surgeries since the accident and may suffer some permanently disability. Neither, both manual laborers has worked since the accident. One of them has a wife and two small daughters and worries how he will be able to support them.
The sorrowful man behind the defense table offered the excuse of being distracted as he looked into his driver’s side mirror. According to him, the next thing he knew his car hit the parked van on the shoulder of the highway. He plead not guilty and on the advice of his attorney did not speak in his own defense as there is civil litigation still pending against him.
The judge found him guilty of negligent driving and fined him $200. Two hundred dollars for a life and so much suffering? In her ruling, the judge said for the benefit of the audience that when we choose to get behind the wheel of these heavy vehicles traveling at high speeds, we have a responsibility to operate them safely. A man is dead and two others have the possibility of lifelong injuries. Their families at least 12-15 people if not more have also been adversely affected.
As I struggled unsuccessfully to hold back the tears, I listened with sadness as driver after driver refused to take any responsibility for their actions behind the wheel. As for my own case, I had earlier entered a plea of “not guilty.” But when it was my turn, I asked judge if I could change my plea and she agreed. I entered a plea of “guilty with explanation.” I said some words but ended my statement with…”After that first case,” which I couldn’t shake from my mind, “I’m driver, I’m responsible.”
As I stood in the line outside to pay the cashier my fine I found myself standing directly behind the red-faced man from the earlier trial. I wanted to say something to him but what could I say. I’m sorry that what happened happened. I wish you all the best. Your situation resonated with me and hopefully will make me adhere more closely to the speed limit in the future.
Oh no! There I was, silently crying again. My eyes quickly filling with moisture, how embarrassing, I hate to cry in front of other people. I didn’t want anyone to think I was crying over my own situation or maybe I was? The man paid his $200 fine and I paid mine. As I turned to leave I saw him speaking to a police officer so I didn’t interrupt. As I left the courthouse, I drove in the right lane, yep, the slow lane, as irritated drivers quickly passed me on the left. But for me, going to the speed limit has never meant so much nor felt so good.
From the Storehouse