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Cooksville victim's friends, family fight parole one signature at a time

ElectionsIllegal ImmigrantsTowson University

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 change.org 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, mdpetitions.com 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.

"I hope people look into and sign this," said Christopher Cheswick, a retired Baltimore County teacher who brought a "Cheese" banner to last season's Ravens' home games. The Taneytown man said his son was a huge fan who attended games with him in the third row in the end zone.

"It is the eligibility [for parole] that is so bothersome," he said.

Christopher Cheswick said he admires his former wife, Cecilia Roe, for being able to forgive their son's killer. Roe said she believes she heard Matthew's voice two weeks after he died, telling her to forgive Facchini.

"I said, 'Of course I can forgive him,'" she said. "Jesus forgave his murderers. How could I do any less?

"But that doesn't mean he is ready to be back on the streets again."

Roe, director of professional development and instructional assessment at the Maryland State Department of Education, wants to hear from experts whether Facchini is ready to be released and not drive drunk anymore.

But she doesn't imagine he has reached that point yet.

"I don't want some other mother to have to go through this," she said. "What I want is Facchini to rehabilitate and not drink any more and turn his life around and fight against drunk driving."

Roe said her younger son, Luke, 16, has kept old text messages from a big brother who is no longer around to say, "I'm here to take care of you," or "I got your back, bud."

Roe said she knew Facchini would not serve the full prison term. But like her former husband, she was shocked to receive the parole letter.

Christopher Cheswick described it as a rip in what's left of his heart.

The letters ask Cheswick's parents to tell the commission by next month if they plan to attend and speak at a parole hearing. They say they will.

Hearings typically are scheduled 60 to 90 days after victims or survivors respond, Blumberg said, so the hearing date is likely to be in July or August.

By then, Facchini will be nearing the minimum 25 percent of his sentence. Jailed since his arrest on the day he struck Cheswick, he will have served at least 14 months. His minimum is 15 months.

His likely release date would come after he serves just under two-thirds of the sentence, which is close to 40 months.

Gilsa Facchini of Lorton, Diogo Facchini's mother, said she has seen a change in her son based on letters he has written to her from prison. She would like him to have the opportunity for parole, but understands the emotions that generated the online petition.

"He is ashamed," she said. He said her son has told her, "'You don't know how much I think about it, every day I think about what happened.'"

Of the petition drive to keep him in jail, she said, "People write a petition because they don't know him."

Diogo Facchini worked as a driver for a patio-paver company before his arrest, she said. She described her son as a good person, and said her heart goes out to Cheswick's family and friends..

Ryan Hanft, 24, another friend of Cheswick from Glenelg High School now helping to publicize the petition, has set a goal for the drive.

"If we could get 10,000 signatures over time to bring awareness to … the consequences of drunk driving, then that would be amazing," Braun said in a text message.

Cheswick's parents say the fact that Cheswick's friends launched the petition speaks volumes about their son.

"It represents the kind of person Matthew was that his friends wanted to do this," Roe said.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/andsiegel

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