Doing Justice, Making Amends

Last Thursday morning, I received an e-mail from Dan Levine, who reminded me that we had worked an engagement a few years ago. He had remained on my e-mail list since that time, sharing my hospice and other coaching writings with his wife, Leigh, an intellectual property litigator. Dan and Leigh live in North Carolina. Dan wrote me about the circumstance of Lyndsay Murray-Mazany, Leigh’s adopted younger sibling.

On July 18, 2010, Lyndsay had been involved in a fatal accident outside Geyersville, which resulted in the deaths of two 77-year-old women. Lyndsay had pled guilty to two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter for driving under the influence of alcohol. The maximum penalty on all four felony charges, with added enhancements, to which Lyndsay admitted, is 20 years. There was no plea bargain and no agreement with the district attorney’s office. Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau indicated during a settlement conference that he would sentence her to no more than seven years in prison. Sentencing is set for Dec. 17.

I don’t do criminal work. What little I recall from law school almost 40 years ago, is augmented periodically with information obtained from criminal lawyer friends. I do have a 29-year-old daughter and a 26-year-old son, who are good kids, but make mistakes. So, what I write here comes from a person with an amateur’s perspective about how I wish justice would work.

Nancy “Sue” McBride was on an outing with her friend, Beverly Jones, and three others on the evening of July 16. Sue and Beverly were Cloverdale residents. Sue had been a long time Spanish teacher, formerly at Cloverdale High School and thereafter at the local senior center. There, she had met Beverly. And they had become friends. Sue was active in her community, a member of the Friends of the Library, an active member of the Episcopal Church, a founder of the Cloverdale Community Outreach Committee, which provides housing assistance to her community’s homeless population.

Her friend, Beverly, also was active in the Cloverdale community, belonging to the charitable sorority Beta Sigma Phi. But she preferred world travel. In fact Beverly and Sue had just returned from a tour of South America.

At 5:30 pm, on July 16, Sue, Beverly, their bridge club members and friends, Alice, Barbara and Katherine were driving east on Geyersville Avenue, when their car was struck by Lyndsay. Sue and Beverly were killed. Alice, Barbara and Katherine were hospitalized. Lyndsay and her boyfriend Joaquin were returning from a wine tasting tour in the Geyersville area. They were accompanied by Emilio, Joaquin’s father, and Bernardo, Joaquin’s best friend.

Lyndsay’s vehicle was proceeding south on Geyersville Avenue as it parallels Highway 101, proceeding through a landscape of uninterrupted grapevines and farmhouses. Geyersville Avenue makes a sharp 90 degree turn, proceeds west under Highway 101 and then turns south on the highway’s west side. South 101 access is available after that 90 degree turn. If you weren’t familiar with the area, you might believe that Geyersville Avenue continues south on the east side of the freeway, through what is known as Banti Lane. However, the right turn is marked because it has proven to be hazardous.

Lyndsay, who was considered almost a teetotaler by her friends, had had some wine on the tour. Her alcohol level at the accident site was just over the .08 intoxication level. It appears, however, that it was less the alcohol than an argument taking place in the vehicle, which led to the fatal distraction.

This weekend, I reviewed letters sent to Judge Chouteau concerning Lyndsay’s character. They tell the tale of a remarkably kind and generous individual who had a lapse of judgment and made a serious error. One friend explained that Lyndsay’s nickname is “the Sherpa” because she carries other people’s loads for them. He described how, in many circumstances, she is the one that makes things work - the person who gets things done. Lyndsay has never had a problem with the law. Her friends uniformly speak to how she goes out of her way to follow the rules and respect authority. But the characteristic that most struck me concerned her capacity for caring; how she listens attentively; how she makes you feel seen when she is with you; and how she cares for others and brings outliers into the fold. Letter after letter spoke to her selflessness, her inclusiveness and her generosity. One writer told of how Lyndsay made her car available to virtual strangers who experienced a medical emergency while at a social event. Another spoke to how, when he moved to England, Lyndsay welcomed him and introduced him to all her classmates. Letter after letter speak to her energy, enthusiasm and good humor.

So what is the right thing under the circumstance? Sonoma County, with its wine and tourism industry has a strong interest in strictly enforcing DUI statutes. I understand that. Lyndsay violated the law and people died as a consequence. I understand that no sentence can recoup such a loss. Do I think, for a moment, that prison will act as a deterrent to Lyndsay? I can’t imagine. Her guilty plea speaks to her guilt and sorrow. If you were to send a signal to the community that Lyndsay is paying an appropriate price for her actions, what would that price be? What acts could leverage the teaching of this tragedy? How could we create value from this, rather than fritter away scarce state resources in an overcrowded prison system?

Interestingly, I found some direction in Sue McBride’s background. Sue’s father was a captain at Folsom State Prison. He then became a warden at San Quentin. Ironically, Sue grew up on the prison grounds, where she also was subject to various restrictions, including, for example, a prohibition on wearing blue jeans. Her son commented that “she didn’t have a lot of freedom as a child.” She and Beverly were engaged in their communities. They were generous. They were compassionate. What do we think that Sue and Beverly, with their big hearts and open minds, would ask of Judge Chouteau?

I see an extraordinary opportunity for Lyndsay to embody Sue and Beverly in a legacy of community service. From the letters I have read, Sue, Beverly and Lyndsay are connected, not only by this tragedy but by their generous and outgoing natures. It would seem that an appropriate sentence would have Lyndsay carry that legacy of compassion and generosity forward in either a sentence of community service to the elderly, which both Sue and Beverly served, or in educating community youth on the dangers of drunken driving. I imagine that when Lyndsay would speak on this subject, her audience would carefully listen and take her message to heart.

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