An auto accident took two lives and began a campaign A Voice for the Victims

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For a long time, Evelyn "Fran" Barrett felt guilty for being alive. She knew it was wrong, insanely wrong, to feel that way. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling. Fran Barrett survived the car wreck. Her husband, Jerry, did not. And neither did her 11-year-old nephew, Jimmy Cianos.

Fran had done everything she could to help save her husband and her sister's son. She had dragged their mangled bodies from the burning pickup truck seconds before it exploded. But Jerry and Jimmy were already dead -- the victims of an accident caused by a drunk driver. Fran was a victim, too, her family told her. No way should she feel guilty.

Fran knew they were right. She began focusing her anger on the driver of the other pickup truck, a young man from Harford County named Sean Hall. And she decided she had survived the accident for one reason: "I was here to see there was justice being done."

And when justice wasn't done; when an admitted drunk driver was sentenced to just 14 months of work release; when Fran and her sister, Robin Cianos, found themselves silenced at the sentencing, the two women vowed to fight.

For more than a year, the sisters waged a tireless campaign to overturn Sean Hall's sentence. They wrote letters to politicians and newspapers. They spoke to other victims. With the help of a victims' rights lawyer, they asked Maryland's appellate courts to order another sentencing, one that would guarantee them the right to speak, to tell Baltimore County Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl what the accident had cost them.

They won. And they lost.

Earlier this month, Maryland's highest court ruled that the state's judges must listen to victims before criminals are sentenced. Judges can no longer simply read a victim impact statement and skip over oral testimony, the Maryland Court of Appeals said.

The ruling was an important victory for Maryland's victims' rights advocates. But the court also refused to order a new sentencing for Sean Hall -- a tremendous blow to Fran and Robin.

"It's really hard to look at the broad picture," says Robin, 41, sitting at her kitchen table in Sykesville surrounded by piles of legal papers. Robin talks quickly. Fran, 40, speaks in slow, measured tones.

"This should have been our right all of the time," Robin says with a long sigh.

The sisters just wanted to tell the judge about their loved ones. How Jerry Barrett was the cheerful type who always had a gang of neighborhood children following him around. How no one could possibly remain in a bad mood around him. How, in his eyes, his wife and their two children, Lisa and Theresa Dawn, could do no wrong.

"Most of my friends liked my parents more than me," jokes Lisa Barrett Getz, now 23. Jerry, who was 39, worked in maintenance for an apartment management firm and was known as "the Candy Man" because he always kept lollipops around for the children.

"He was my husband for 22 years and my best friend for 23 years," Fran says. "I know I was really blessed to have what we had together. Most people go through their whole lifetimes without that."

Jimmy was Robin's eldest son. She and her husband, James, also have a younger set of twin boys, who adored their older brother. He was a happy-go-lucky kid who loved playing Little League baseball and following the Orioles. "Jimmy never did get to go to Camden Yards," his mother says.

She looks at her two children who are rumbling around the kitchen looking for snacks and asking if they can go swimming. "The twins are the same age now that Jimmy was when he died," she says.

Though Fran lived in Parkville and Robin lived in Sykesville, the sisters remained close. Their families often spent time together. This was going to be their first joint vacation: a week together in an Ocean City condo.

Jimmy told his mom he wanted to ride to the beach with his aunt and uncle in their red Mitsubishi pickup. He thought the truck was cool, and there was plenty of room. Lisa and Theresa weren't going.

The Barretts left a few hours ahead of everyone else because Jerry wanted to stop for breakfast and get to the beach early.

They set out in the wee hours of the morning on Aug. 7, 1993. Jimmy was sitting in the back talking to his aunt as Jerry headed south on the Beltway. He was near Sparrows Point at about 2:30 a.m. when he suddenly began shouting. Headlights were coming straight at them.

Fran remembers screaming, "My God, we're going to be killed!" Their truck was hit head on by Sean Hall's 1991 Toyota pickup truck. The Barretts' truck slammed into a concrete barrier and caught fire. Fran lost consciousness for a few seconds.

"When I came to, fires were everywhere," she says, gazing off into space. She lights a cigarette, slowly inhales and blows the smoke out. It takes a while for her to continue talking.

"I turned and looked at Jerry," she says in a monotone. "I saw all of the blood. I was saying 'Wake up! Wake up!' I panicked. I couldn't get out of the truck. I lost it and started screaming, 'Where's Jimmy? Where's Jimmy?' "

Somehow, Fran managed to get out of the truck. "I was flinging stuff out of the bed of the truck. At first I couldn't find Jimmy. He was underneath burning blankets. When I found him, I tried to pick him up. But the pain was excruciating. So I dragged him out of the truck under his arm.

"I didn't know what to do. Go with Jerry or stay with Jimmy," she says. "And then, a man appeared and tried to help out." Fran never learned his name.

Together, they dragged Jerry across the highway seconds before the truck exploded.

"He looked like he had been slaughtered," Fran says, her eyes watering at the memory.

Fran, hurt too, was hospitalized with broken ribs, a punctured lung, badly injured shoulders and back. It fell to her daughter, Lisa, to make the painful calls to other family members.

"I started calling Daddy's family," Lisa says. "I thought, 'How do I tell my grandparents that their baby son is dead?' "

Twice the family gathered for a funeral. Jimmy Cianos was buried on a Tuesday in his Little League uniform. Two days later, Jerome Barrett was laid to rest. His casket was veiled because, his daughter says, "it just didn't look like him."

Somehow, it made Fran feel better to put pictures in the casket. Family pictures, wedding pictures, almost every good picture she had of Jerry went into the casket.

Fran was lost without Jerry. For 22 years, he had been the center of her life. They never had a lot of money, but Jerry took care of his family.

Fran was 16 and expecting their first child when they got married. Jerry was 17. But they had beaten the odds. Their marriage had not only survived; it had flourished. And then he was gone.

"She has had a very hard time," her sister says. "It has changed everything for her."

Although Jerry had a small insurance policy, Fran now needed to bring home a weekly paycheck for the first time in her life. She has had trouble keeping a job, mostly due to recurring back and shoulder problems from the accident.

And Jimmy's death left a gaping hole in the Cianos family. Robin and her husband had to tell the twins, then 9, that their brother was dead.

"It was hard," Robin says. "We said Jimmy and Uncle Jerry were in an accident and now they are with Jesus." Both boys cried.

Since Jimmy's death, one twin has been unsettled by even minor changes around the house. He became upset when his parents decided to replace the old refrigerator with a new one.

To cope with their grief, the family began attending support groups for victims, where they met others who had lost loved ones to violence. Some had been meeting for many years and still hadn't gotten past their pain.

"It's very frightening and depressing to see that this is our future," Robin wrote to the judge.

The driver

Sean Patrick Hall was the child of an alcoholic mother, according to court testimony. And he was a drinker, too.

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1993, he was on his way home from a crab feast, where he had drunk at least eight beers.

Several hours after the accident, his blood alcohol level measured about .17. In Maryland, a level of .10 is legal proof of intoxication.

This wasn't Hall's first time driving drunk. In 1989, he was convicted of an alcohol-related driving offense and granted probation before judgment. After two years on probation, his record was wiped clean.

Hall, who refused to be interviewed for this story, admitted he was drunk again when his pickup crossed the center line and slammed head on into the Barrett's truck. On Jan. 6, 1994, the 24-year-old Edgewood man pleaded guilty to two counts of automobile manslaughter and driving while intoxicated.

In preparation for Hall's sentencing, Fran and Robin each wrote a letter to Judge Kahl to explain what they had lost. So did about 60 other people: family members, friends, Jerry's co-workers, Jimmy's neighbors and teachers.

"This is going to be a very hard letter for me to write and probably a hard letter for you to read and fully understand," Fran wrote in her 10-page letter to Judge Kahl. "I am putting all my faith in you and God."

She and her sister urged the judge to impose a strict sentence on Hall.

"We as parents know that this hole in our hearts and souls will never be fully mended and this void can never be filled as we struggle to get through each next day without ever seeing our Jimmy's smiling face again," Robin wrote.

"I do believe, in the end, God will be his final judge. In the meantime, our judicial system must serve as the judges and protect the innocent."

The sentencing

Though they had written to Judge Kahl, both women walked into the courtroom on March 7, 1994, expecting to talk to him as well. They wanted him to see and hear their pain.

The judge, who refused to speak to The Sun for this story, didn't deny the sisters the right to speak, the court transcript shows. But he made it clear that he thought it would be a waste of time.

"There's nothing those fine people could tell me that hadn't already been said in whatever letters I've received," the judge said that day. "While I respect their right to be heard, we're already running, I think, a half-hour late. I really don't think it would be beneficial to take the time to hear from them.

"I did read the letters. Very thorough letters. They clearly indicate how deeply these people feel. Nothing they can say will bring the victims back or in any way change what's happened. I would just rather not take that additional time this morning," Judge Kahl said.

Baltimore County prosecutor John Cox advised Fran and Robin not to demand to speak.

"I told them it was an issue they could try to push if they wanted to, but I didn't think it would be a good idea," Mr. Cox recalls. "They basically left it up to me, and I didn't think it would be a good idea to get into a confrontation with the judge right before sentencing."

Sean Hall, however, did speak. "Just want [you] to know that what happened that night was in no way intended," he told the judge.

"I know there is nothing I can say to this family. There's nothing I can say to them. I'm sorry. That ain't good enough," he said. "I wish I could change it."

His attorney, Robert Stange, said Hall was suffering from screaming nightmares. His girlfriend, Debbie Hays, said that he had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for seven months and hadn't had a drink since the night of the accident.

"He is so sorry for what he did," she said.

The judge could have sentenced him to up to 21 years in jail. But Judge Kahl didn't want to impose the maximum penalty.

"I could do something to this man that would essentially take his life away, but I can't see doing that," Judge Kahl said.

He sentenced Hall to 14 months of work release at the Baltimore County Detention Center. He could go to work each day at Chemetals Inc., where he was a mechanic, but would spend nights and weekends locked up. The sentence would be followed by four years of probation with alcohol counseling.

The sound of those four words, "fourteen months work release" sent the family into a rage. "You call this justice?" one family member yelled. Others began crying and ran out of the courtroom.

But Hall's attorney believes the sentence was fair, and that the judge didn't need to hear from the victims.

"I know they wanted to vent themselves," Mr. Stange says. But he doesn't believe the family could have added anything that was not already in the letters.

For Fran and Robin, though, the sentencing was devastating -- a complete failure of the justice system. Once again, Fran Barrett began asking herself: Why had she survived? "I thought somehow I didn't get killed so I could see justice done," Fran told a reporter that day. "I should have been killed with them."

The sisters didn't know where to turn or what to do next. They consulted a lawyer, but he told them there was nothing they could do.

Then a relative led them to Roberta Roper, an advocate of victims' rights whose daughter, Stephanie, was kidnapped and murdered in 1982. Mrs. Roper's organization, the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, usually deals with victims of homicides and refers others to organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

Mrs. Roper had been prevented from speaking at the sentencing for her daughter's killers. She knew what Fran and Robin were going through.

Mrs. Roper put them in touch with the foundation's lawyer, Russell Butler, who agreed to represent them for free.

The campaign

Even before the sentencing, Robin and Fran had collected hundreds of signatures on a petition calling for a strong sentence for Sean Hall and other drunk drivers.

Family members knocked on doors, went to college campuses, talked to friends and neighbors, and filled 15 legal-size sheets with names of people supporting them. The petition went to the governor, Fran says.

Robin also began monitoring drunk driving cases in the media. When a defendant received what she believed was a light sentence, she would protest with letters to politicians and The Sun.

After the sentencing, Robin stepped up her crusade. A nurse who worked the night shift, she spent hours at her kitchen table, writing letters to protest Hall's sentence.

Robin wrote the governor, the mayor, senators, judges and anyone else she thought could help.

She got a few reponses in return, mostly from powerful people who said they couldn't help.

"I wish I could be of some aid and comfort to you with respect to your recent letter to me," wrote Judge Robert Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, ". . . but I am without any authority in criminal cases to superintend the sentencing determinations of trial judges."

"I can well understand your concerns about the sentence rendered in this case," Sen. Paul Sarbanes wrote. "However, the Baltimore County Circuit Court is part of the Maryland State Court system and is therefore, not under the jurisdiction of the United States Senate."

Then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer didn't get Jimmy's name right, but offered his sympathies.

"It is rare that I receive a letter as heart-wrenching as yours. The terrible shock of your son Benjamin's death and your overwhelming grief are apparent in your writing," Mr. Schaefer wrote.

Still, there was nothing he could do: "The Maryland Constitution strictly prohibits the Executive Branch of Government from exercising any governing authority over the Judicial Branch of Government."

Vice President Al Gore also had little to offer: "Please be assured that safeguarding our streets, families and homes from crime is a top priority for this Administration."

One last try

On March 2, Fran and Robin went to Annapolis for their final shot at justice. They listened as Mr. Butler urged the Maryland Court of Appeals to overturn Sean Hall's sentence.

On June 6, the court turned them down. But the justices did rule unanimously that Maryland judges must listen to the victims before sentencing. Even if they are running late. Even if they think they know what the victims will say.

"I can't stress the significance of this opinion," Mrs. Roper says. "It establishes legal precedent."

By the time the Court of Appeals issued its ruling, Sean Hall had served his 14 months of work release and was back home. He remains on probation for the next four years. During that time, he must perform 160 hours of community service and participate in least 10 victim-impact panels sponsored by MADD.

None of it will bring back Jimmy Cianos and Jerry Barrett.

Robin recently ran into one of Jimmy's old schoolmates outside a store. He was so tall she didn't recognize him. After they chatted for a while, she sat in her car and wept uncontrollably.

Fran is still trying to piece her life back together. The accident has left her scared to drive, but she does when she has to. A picture of her husband is taped to her --board. "Jerry keeps me safe."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
32°