Matthew Cheswick

Matthew Cheswick (Photo courtesy of Cheswick family / April 14, 2013)

When Christopher Cheswick learned that the drunken driver who killed his son Matthew might be paroled after little more than a year in prison, he turned to Facebook to post his outrage and heartbreak.

Carl Braun had a different reaction: He launched an online petition to fight the early release of the man who took his friend's life.

"I thought, 'This is not right,'" said Braun, 24. "The punishment does not fit the crime. Matthew's life was worth so much more than that."

Cheswick — friends called him "Cheese," for his camera-ready smile — was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in Ocean City last May as he was crossing the Coastal Highway. The Cooksville man, a graduate of Glenelg High School and a student at Towson University, was 22.

Diogo Facchini, 31, of Lorton, Va., pleaded guilty last year to negligent homicide while impaired and leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced in November to five years in prison.

But in March, less than five months after the sentencing, the Maryland Parole Commission sent letters informing Cheswick's parents that Facchini would be up for parole this year.

Kristina Watkowski, an assistant public defender who represented Facchini, declined to comment on the case.

Braun, of Woodbine, launched the petition at on March 28 to fight Facchini's early release.

In less than three weeks, the petition has attracted more than 3,000 signatures — and dozens of online comments.

"Matt hasn't even been in his grave for a year, there is no possible explanation for why parole is already being considered," wrote one signer.

"A precious life is gone. Do the crime. Do the time," wrote another.

David Blumberg, a member of the Maryland Parole Commission for 10 years and chairman for nine, said the hundreds of e-petitions that have landed in his inbox are "unprecedented" for a single parole hearing.

"It's very unusual to have this amount of interaction and communication with people on a particular case," Blumberg said. He said the commission welcomes all opinions as it considers parole.

Nathan Jurgenson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, is working on a doctoral dissertation on social media.

While online petitions are growing more popular, he said, little is known about how seriously they are taken or whether they influence public policy.

Some critics dismiss Internet activism as "slacktivism" — "You don't even have get out of your pajamas," he said.

But he added that "there is a growing sentiment that what is happening on the Internet is real" and social media campaigns can play a role in public policy debates.

Online petitions already play a significant role in Maryland politics. Opponents of legislation to create tuition breaks for illegal immigrants, to recognize same-sex marriage and to redraw the political map to favor Democrats mounted successful online petition drives to put the questions before voters on the 2012 ballot. Voters ultimately upheld those laws.

With the Democratic General Assembly this year approving a new gun control law, the repeal of the death penalty and other controversial legislation, founder Del. Neil Parrott, the Washington County Republican behind the last round of petitions, is asking supporters which measures they should try to defeat this time.

The response to Braun's petition has provided comfort to Cheswick's parents, who described their son as a delightful, thoughtful person looking ahead to a future in occupational therapy. At the time of his death, he had completed the first semester of his junior year at Towson and was working at the Merriweather Post Pavilion.