DWI: When choices turn deadly

Gwen Chamberlain
A DWI conviction in Yates County usually results in an invitation to a Victim Impact Panel session to hear from those whose lives will never be the same because of someone’s decision to drink and drive.

Our days are full of choices. Each of those choices has consequences — some meaningless, some harmless, some rewarding, some disappointing, but in some cases, those choices lead to devastating, deadly consequences.

A room full of people whose choices landed them in court facing driving while intoxicated or driving while ability impaired charges heard the stories of two women whose lives were ripped apart after being swept up in the consequences from the choices that drunk drivers made.

The women — Sarah Palermo and Chasity Kennedy — were the speakers at the seventh Yates County Victim Impact Panel on Sept. 21. The Victim Impact Panel, a project of the county’s Stop DWI program, brings those convicted of DWI or DWAI face-to-face with the realities of the accidents that took the lives of siblings, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Standing before a room full of strangers and talking about the most painful events in your life can take a toll, but Palermo and Kennedy say speaking at the Victim Impact Panels helps them deal with the pain.

“It’s all I can do for Lindsay (her deceased daughter). I don’t want any other mothers to lose a child.”

Kennedy said, “It hurts and it’s hard, but in the long run it helps me to deal with the loss,” adding, “If I save a life, I feel good that I’ve done my duty.”

Kennedy described the deaths of her sister and her 2-year-old nephew in 2005. Another nephew is paralyzed from the shoulders down following the head-on collision.

“No parent should have to bury their child and no grandparent should have to bury their grandchild. My mother had to do both on the same day,” she said, describing how 2-year-old Benjemin was buried in the casket with his mother, Heather, who held his body in her own lifeless arms.

Two other children, now motherless with Heather’s death, are victims as well — their lives forever changed as the consequences of someone else’s choice to drink and then drive.

Sarah Palermo described the events leading up to the day after her October 2008 birthday, when her only daughter, Lindsay Kyle, was killed in a Rochester accident.

Lindsay’s car was in a line of vehicles in downtown Rochester in the early morning hours of Oct. 19, 2003, when a speeding Cadillac slammed into her compact car at a rate of roughly 106 mph. The impact crushed Lindsay’s body in a space of about 18 inches, according to Palermo.

The driver of the Cadillac fled the scene of the accident, but was later tracked down by police and charged with murder in the second degree, leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving and speeding. After a two-week trial, he was found guilty. But the ordeal goes on for Lindsay’s family.

Lindsay’s fiance, who was in a car in front of hers, saw the horrific crash in his own rear-view mirror.

He placed her diamond engagement ring on her finger at her funeral a few days later.

“It’s a life sentence to lose the woman you love so madly,” said Palermo through her tears, adding, “Everyone has someone they can’t live without.”

Palermo said she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her, but she wants them to know how the consequences of their decisions impact others.

“Your proudest moment can’t be the one when you had to call someone and ask them to bail you out because you had been arrested,” she said.

Before the guest speakers shared their emotional stories,  the group of about 35 people whose sentences required them to attend the session quietly watched a slide show that combined statistics about DWI arrests, convictions and drunk driving accidents with upsettingly graphic photographs of accidents caused by drunk drivers.

The photos of mangled and maimed bodies flashed on the overhead screen several times — burning the horrifying images into the audience’s memories.

Yates County Undersheriff Jack Gleason and Penn Yan Police Chief Mark Hulse opened the program with comments before District Attorney Jason Cook spoke about the goal of the Victim Impact Panel program.

“We don’t want to see you back,” Cook said, explaining the audience members can consider themselves lucky if they were charged after being pulled over by an officer, rather than being involved in an accident that injured or killed someone.

“Tonight is about realizing about the danger of the risks. In the end commiting this crime comes down to a choice,” he said.

According to Cook, there were 120 felony and misdemearnor DWI convictions in Yates County last year. Each of those convicted is required to prove they attended one of the two annual Victim Impact Panels.

Comments from people who attended the previous panel, held in March indicated the impression that was left on participants, most who said their drinking habits and drinking and driving practices would change:

• “It was a very powerful message. I am truly sorry for her loss.”

• “Life is too precious to make bad decisions.”

• “I could have killed someone or killed myself! Fines are nothing compared to the lasting effects of taking someone’s life.”

• “No matter the circumstances, there is never any reason good enough to get behind the wheel after drinking.”

• “It was tough listening to her heartache and the heartache of her family. I have a very close family and the thought of losing any one of them is devastating.”

• “I was arrested on a boat and there were times when I thought it was unfair because I was on this big open lake. But, I realize that it has no bearing on the way things could go horribly wrong. I thank God for this entire experience, and panel for opening all of our eyes.”