Kathleen Brooks tried to get her message across in a straightforward manner, a message about the horror one person can cause by getting behind the wheel drunk.
Brooks’ story was her own, the story of how her 13-year-old daughter was struck and mortally wounded by a drunken driver in Colonie in 1986.
“I just wanted to lay my head on her chest,” Brooks told an audience last week in a Schenectady County Community College lecture hall of the moment she had to let her daughter go. “I just wanted to feel her heartbeat, listen to her heartbeat a little bit longer.”
Listening to Brooks speak this night was a group of men and women largely from Schenectady County, all under court order to attend. Brooks’ audience consisted of convicted drunken drivers.
The aim of such events, called victim impact panels, is to get across to offenders the real costs of drunken driving and hopefully deter them from doing it again, organizers say. The panel addresses financial costs and the loss of freedom, but it is the human cost that is the primary focus of the event.
Similar panels have been held around the country since the 1980s. The program gives offenders a firsthand account of the pain and suffering they could cause innocent victims and family members. The panels also helps victims’ families heal by allowing them to tell their own stories about the loved ones they lost, according to the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In Schenectady County, the panels are held every two months, with as many as 70 offenders attending a single presentation.
All judges in Schenectady County now require attendance for those convicted of drunken-driving offenses, officials said. Attendance goes along with other parts of sentences, which can include jail and probation.
The local panels are organized by the county STOP-DWI program.
About 50 appeared at last week’s event at the college, men and women from around the county and some from outside the county.
Brooks opened the program. She brought with her framed pictures of her daughter and her double heart-shaped headstone. The pictures remained in view throughout her talk and the rest of the program.
“I still miss Vicki every day,” Brooks told the crowd. “There are still days where it feels like it just happened.”
Brooks wasn’t confrontational, saying she knew no one there would want to cause such pain, and she repeated the theme that someone who has been drinking should never get behind the wheel.
Handling the legal and other consequences of drunken driving was senior county probation officer Alan Rohloff.
“After listening to Kathleen,” Rohloff asked those present, “should I really have to come up here and talk?”
Throughout the program, some offenders appeared attentive. For others, their posture made it appear they were just waiting for the event to be over. That happens at each class, city police Sgt. Patrick Morris said later. Morris helps put on the events with the STOP-DWI program.
“Sometimes you can see the looks on people’s faces. You can tell the people that are really affected by it,” Morris said. “And some you can tell that they just want to get out of there.”
During a half-hour video that recounts tragic drunken-driving cases around New York state through interviews with victims’ families and prosecutors, one man in the center of the seating area leaned forward in his seat, his hand on his chin, appearing to watch closely. Another in the back slouched in his seat.
A woman in a pink shirt wiped her eyes as Brooks spoke and during the video.
Moved by stories
In a back corner, a woman appeared moved by the presentation. She spoke to The Gazette afterward on condition her name not be used.
“Every story was devastating,” the woman said. “I’m grateful that nothing like that happened in my life. I’m grateful every single day.”
The woman said she was following her husband home when she hit a parked car and was convicted of driving while ability impaired. She said she’s been thankful since the time of her crash that she didn’t cause something worse.
In the minutes after the event concluded, she said she believes the program is worthwhile.
“It reinforced everything that I think and everything that I ever thought,” the woman said. “I never thought it would happen to me, never. I hope it impacted a lot of other people here tonight, as well.”
The effectiveness of such programs has been the subject of some debate.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Board listed victim impact panels in a 2005 report as a promising sentencing practice. The report cited studies conducted in the 1990s that found such panels lower recidivism rates.
A 2003 survey of those who attended Saratoga County panels broke down the demographics of those attending panels there. The survey, conducted by then-Skidmore College student Miriam Popper found that of about 470 responding, just more than half — 255 — had a prior DWI conviction. Of the total number, only 72 had previously attended a panel.
The respondents also shared their drinking history, with 86 percent reporting they took their first drink before age 21. Of the total, 18.4 percent reported their first drink at 13 or younger.
Asked in the survey whether they had ever considered the consequences of their offense, two-thirds responded they had not.
Would the panels deter them in the future? Virtually all, 96.2 percent, said it would.
The survey didn’t address what happened later to those who participated.
Sobriety a must
At the Schenectady County event, officials acknowledged the message from victims won’t reach everyone, and there are often other, deep-seated problems at work. That is evidenced by how the program begins: Those attending must line up and blow into Breathalyzers to prove they are sober.
Two people were turned away last week for registering alcohol in their system. Morris said later that two people in the past couple of years have been rearrested for drunken driving at the panels, caught not only drunk when appearing at the event, but trying to drive after they left.
“If they can’t not drink for a day, then they have more serious problems that they need to address,” Morris acknowledged.
There is a fee to attend the program. Offenders are charged $30, with the money going toward putting on the panel and other STOP-DWI efforts.
Schenectady County STOP-DWI Administrator Thomas Delaney said the panel likely won’t get to habitual offenders. For others, though, he sees more benefit.
“It gets to the ones that actually, honestly made a mistake,” Delaney said.
Brooks, now 68 and still living in Colonie, is a regular speaker at the Schenectady County panels. She has been telling her daughter’s story at schools and elsewhere in the years since her daughter died. She got involved in Schenectady County through the Schenectady-based organization Remove Intoxicated Drivers.
She says the work gives her daughter’s life meaning.
“It keeps Vicki alive in a way,” Brooks said.
As for the impact of her talks, she hopes her message gets through.
“As long as I know I’m getting through to a few of them,” it’s worthwhile, Brooks said.
At the Schenectady County event last week, a woman named Mary Beth stayed around to express her appreciation to the presenters and organizers, while most others left quickly.
“I wanted to say thank you for this,” she told Morris and Delaney.
As Mary Beth recounted her own story, Delaney continued the non-confrontational approach.
“People make mistakes,” he told her. “As long as you didn’t hurt anybody, you can move forward and learn from it, hopefully.”
Mary Beth, who asked her full name not be used, told The Gazette she has battled alcohol abuse for a long time and had been sober for a dozen years until the months leading up to her arrest.
Her late father was involved in a serious crash while drunk years ago.
Mary Beth considered herself fortunate. Her arrest involved driving the wrong way on Route 7, and police stopped her before she injured anyone.
She said she continues with meetings and classes.
Listening to Brooks’ story, Mary Beth said she just wanted to get up right then and hug her.
“I know I needed to be here,” she said. “I needed awareness. I needed to hear another speaker. It was good for me.”