Texas' passion to punish tramples on justice


If police accounts are true, 34-year-old Shirley Draper of Wimberly, Texas, used appallingly poor judgment in September when she allowed her two daughters to ride in a car driven by their father even though he was drunk at the time.

And Mrs. Draper paid a terrible penalty for her lapse in judgment: Both daughters, as well as the father, were killed when he lost control of his car and plunged into a 10-foot-deep body of water near Wimberly in central Texas.

But has she paid enough?

Apparently not. On Nov. 10, a Hays County grand jury charged Mrs. Draper with two counts of injury to a child and two counts of endangering a child.

Prosecutors say the mother should be held responsible for her children's deaths even though she was not the driver and, in fact, was not even in the car at the time of the accident. She faces life imprisonment if convicted.

Mrs. Draper, who denies that she knew the driver of the car -- her ex-husband -- was intoxicated, is free on $5,000 bond. She has been in seclusion since her indictment.

According to police, Gregory Cook had been arrested three times for drunken driving since 1992. In July, his car was equipped with an ignition-lock device that was supposed to have made it impossible for him to drive the car without first taking a breath test.

On Sept. 25, Mr. Cook had been visiting his daughters, Marissa, 8, and Shauna, 10, and offered to treat them to breakfast at a nearby restaurant. Police say he had been drinking heavily that morning and that he asked his daughter Marissa to blow into the breath-testing device in order to circumvent the ignition lock. Police allege Mrs. Draper knew of this, yet allowed the girls to ride with their father anyway -- a charge Mrs. Draper denies.

En route home from the restaurant, Mr. Cook apparently lost control, broadsided a tree and plunged down a deep embankment into the water. An autopsy revealed he had more than twice the blood alcohol level allowed by law.

Prosecutors want to make an example of Mrs. Draper. And Mothers Against Drunk Driving plans to use the case as part of a national campaign to stiffen penalties against parents who endanger their children, either by driving drunk or by allowing children to ride in a car with an intoxicated driver. For instance, the group would like to see the penalty for driving while intoxicated doubled if a child is present in the car. MADD also proposes that prosecutors classify the transportation of minors by intoxicated adults as child abuse.

Prosecutor Marcos Hernandez Jr. told me he hopes the indictment "will do good, and someone out there will not let this happen again."

Adds Jon Posey, president of the Heart of Texas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving: "I know the woman [Mrs. Draper] is suffering, but you don't put your children in dangerous situations. You don't leave them in a burning house. You don't throw them in the middle of the ocean. You don't put them in the car with a drunk driver."

I suspect that almost every adult (who is sane) would agree, although too many people continue to take drunken driving lightly. But we do not need to incarcerate Mrs. Draper to drive the point home.

It bothers me that we so often use the courts these days to "send messages." MADD is not the only group to demand ever-stiffer criminal sanctions, and drunken driving is not the only issue.

Lost in the current passion to punish is the notion that people are best motivated by education rather than fear. And that justice is best served when people are treated as individuals, not as symbols through which messages can be sent. We seem driven by rage instead of compassion, and that cannot be healthy.

Suppose prosecutors had held a press conference after the accident, outlined the facts of the case -- including Mrs. Draper's alleged culpability -- and then added, "But we will not press charges. She has suffered enough."

Don't you think most people still would have gotten the point; and that the reminder about the dangers of drunken driving would have been just as poignant?

I think so. The tragedy speaks for itself.

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