How Angry Mothers and 'Little Girls' Changed Law on Drunken Drivers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She died in the merciless onslaught of a drunken driver who barreled through a stop sign and into the side of her mother's minivan. In the fury of shattered glass and crushed metal, this world lost a smile, a poet's eye, a loving heart, a leader's spirit and who can say what else.

Anne Kristen Davis, just 12 years old, became one of the 17,461 Americans killed in 1993 in alcohol-driven car crashes. About the same number of men, women and children died in the year just ended.

Annie Davis was on her way home from a football game and a stop at the local McDonald's. Her friends Valerie Edwards and Cassie Weitzen were with her in the middle seat of the minivan driven by Annie's mother, Susan Edkins.

Intending no irony, her stepfather, Alan Edkins, called it an All- American Friday night: touchdowns, cheeseburgers, pickups and drunken drivers.

Thomas Francis George, the motorist who crashed into the van, told police he'd been drinking beer at the Elks Club that afternoon. Beer cans and a cooler were found in the truck. George refused to take the blood-alcohol test that would have shown just how much he had drunk.

The crash occurred at the corner of Cape St. Claire and Busch's Frontage roads, adjacent to U.S. 50 outside Annapolis and not far from Arnold, a community of $200,000 homes built around the Magothy River, idyllic and all but isolated from the world outside. When the helicopters whirled overhead that night, no one thought they had come for children of their community or that one of them would not return.

"I thought it was all a dream," said Annie's brother, Drew. "No bad stuff had really ever happened to me."

"I'm never going to see her again," said Annie's friend Mark Porto. "Making myself believe it is the hardest thing."

Believing hasn't gotten much easier in the 14 months since the crash. One of her classmates at Magothy River Middle School, still working out her feelings, made a poster recently that said, "Annie Davis Lives."

Reminders are everywhere in almost everything. During an outing last fall at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, students noticed that trees had been planted in honor of various classes and individuals. "We should plant one for Annie," one of the students told Annie's teacher, Diane Bragdon.

Ms. Bragdon, who directs the enrichment program at Magothy River, works with students on special projects. She asks them to fill out what she calls a "light bulb form," outlining the idea they want to pursue.

"After Annie's death our mailbox was flooded with forms," she says. The first child in the door was Erin Scheide, also 12: "I want to know what will happen to the man who killed my friend."

Ms. Bragdon and other parents thought they knew: "I thought this guy was going to go to jail immediately. I really did. I was completely naive."

A representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving started her re-education:

"You can't count on justice happening here," Ms. Bragdon quotes her. "You can't count on this person ever going to jail. For one thing, he probably refused a blood-alcohol test."

In a sense, Ms. Bragdon wanted to pull the protective shield back into place.

"It really bothered me on a visceral level that a whole community of children, more than a thousand, might see that someone killed someone else and didn't get a minute in jail," she said. Each of 1,017 children at Magothy River had been through the D.A.R.E., an anti-drug abuse program emphasizing that individuals can control their lives -- and that consequences flow if they don't. But here was a situation that threatened to undermine that lesson.

Erin Scheide and Valerie Edwards led the student campaign. Working with MADD, they prepared to testify for a bill that would close a loophole in the blood-alcohol testing law.

Though testing was "mandatory" when a death occurred, that death must be immediate. While the victim lived, a driver could refuse to take the test -- and to be a valid measurement of the driver's condition at the time of the crash, the test must be done within two hours. Though gravely injured, Annie Davis lived more than a day.

Against the odds

But prospects for closing the loophole were not good. A bill that would have done what the Magothy River group wanted died without a vote in the House Judiciary Committee, a defense lawyer-dominated panel never regarded as a champion of tough sanctions against drunks.

But Susan Edkins and Annie's classmates demanded reconsideration and, with election-year pressure, they were successful.

"It seems as if when you refuse to do everything a police officer tells you to do, you stand a better chance of not being punished or of being punished to a lesser degree," Erin told the senators and delegates.

Angry mothers and 12-year-old girls were pulling back the veil on the legislative process. "Those little girls forced themselves on the legislature and did something we weren't able to do," said Howard Merker, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County. The State's Attorneys Association of Maryland had, in fact, given up on a loophole-closing bill it had sponsored for years.

Evelyn Armiger, who describes herself as a legislative ankle-biter from MADD, was equally impressed. She had worked for the same bill, to no avail, for eight years.

Proponents urged passage because prosecutors need the concrete test evidence. Particularly in the most serious cases, the test results help to show state of mind, intent and irresponsibility.

Forced into the world of politics, Annie's friends were learning a great deal about their government.

"I'm in awe of it," said Dawn Poley Schulman, mother of one of the students. But the experience of dealing with the protocols and sensibilities of the legislature made her feel as if she'd been forced to learn a foreign language with all its nuances -- an odd requirement, she thought, for a system that promised openness and action for citizens.

"There's an arrogance in the committee system that stops things from getting through," Ms. Bragdon said. She realizes that special circumstances pushed last year's successful petitioning of the General Assembly. But she thinks further advances are possible in the session that begins Jan. 11.

She will argue that Maryland is losing money by its refusal to pass laws against drunken driving such as those of many other states. One of these proposals is referred to as "illegal per se," and it essentially means that anyone with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limits is automatically guilty. A trial would decide only the punishment. Forty-six other states have done this already.

States with the illegal per se statute and a variety of other measures deemed important in the fight against drunken drivers qualify for $1 million in federal money each year. Ms. Bragdon and Erin Scheide's mother, Julie, have begun discussions with House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

"He's interested in our package," Ms. Bragdon says.

But Ms. Bragdon points out that the legislative victory has not made the pain go away.

"The magnitude of the loss is not less today than the day it happened," she says. "We grapple with it every day in the school. It comes up every single day."

And the ripples are visible.

"They still ask me what happened to the man. Is he in jail now?"

Driver's plea

George agreed in a guilty plea last fall that the state had sufficient evidence to find him guilty of vehicular homicide. That offense carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. George was sentenced to two months in jail, four months in home detention, 400 hours of community service and five years' probation.

On Annie Davis' 13th birthday, a banner was hung at the cross erected by a neighbor of the Edkins family's at the crash site. Balloons were hung in front of the school.

"We don't ever get away from it," Ms. Bragdon said. "We closed the loophole. We did a good job."

Another group of youngsters learned too early that life can bring tragedy and that not everyone is outraged by it.

"You want justice. That's the goal. And they might as well know it's hard, yes, but they're still babies. I don't want kids to think you can get away with murder," Ms. Bragdon said.

The pain still ripples over them, but along with it there is new knowledge, new confidence -- the sort of things Anne Davis would have earned for herself in a similar situation. When things didn't work out the way she thought they should and when someone offered what she thought was a bogus excuse, Annie would say "moo." Her friends said it for her last year at the General Assembly and, in time, the legislators heard.

"We do have a bunch of empowered kids," Ms. Bragdon says. "They feel they can change any law they don't like."

That may not be realistic, but it beats the alternative, she says:

"I'd rather have them feeling fired up than feeling they can't do anything."

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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