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Is It Right to Forgive the Deadly Driver?

Nine years ago next week my wife was hit by a cab driver. She was crossing at an intersection at the edge of downtown Athens, Georgia, on her way to meet me for some grocery shopping and, per usual for a Friday, an evening at our favorite watering hole. I was wrapping up editing duties for the following week's edition of the paper where I worked when I got the call.

Forgiveness does not necessarily equate to absolution, but dismissing the value of justice does have a way of cheapening life.

"Hey, is this Brad?" said the stranger on the line. "Your wife got bumped by a taxi." That was the word: bumped. I remember running from my office into the lobby of the building, yelling. The publisher and I ran to his old Volvo wagon and he drove me to the scene.

Jennifer was crossing with the light when the cab driver, attempting to turn right on red and looking for traffic coming from his left, rolled up onto her foot. When she pounded on the hood he backed up, running her over a second time. She was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, where we spent the rest of the day before she was sent home on crutches.

The driver was charged with failing to yield to a pedestrian and got a $75 ticket, but neither he nor his employer admitted fault. Rather than haggle over medical costs, we took the cab company's insurer to civil court -- or, more accurately, we took them and our own insurer to court, since cab companies in Georgia were (and still are, I imagine) required to carry the barest of coverage. Following a couple of hours of testimony from Jennifer, the cabbie, the witness who called me from his cell phone, and me, each side rested its case. After a brief period of deliberation, the jury had a question for the judge: Can we award more than the amount of the suit?

We won in court, but we never got the satisfaction of an admission of guilt, much less an apology. Instead our attorney said word around the cab company was that Jennifer made a habit of being hit by cars for money. Miraculously, her foot wasn't crushed. She does, however, suffer numbness and pain in her foot and knee that persist to this day. I try not to think about what might have happened if she had taken one more step before the driver hit the gas. All things considered, we got lucky.

So it is with some squeamishness that I broach the issue of remorse exhibited by drivers who injure and kill, and forgiveness granted them by their victims. I am amazed, frankly, by a person like Maria Boffa, who this week approached her son's shackled killer in court and wished him well. Joseph Boffa, a high school social studies teacher, was run down by a drunken Luis Guamal in Dyker Heights last March. Guamal, who pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide and was sentenced to eight to 24 years in prison, seemed to Ms. Boffa a lonely soul in need of comfort. "I did it for my son's sake," she said. "I felt he was really remorseful."

I have read and written about far too many cases like this over the last few years: grieving relatives and friends suddenly left to grapple with an unfathomable and eternal absence, killers punished or not punished by rule of law. In most instances where the killer expresses contrition, I personally have a difficult time differentiating between remorse and self-pity. Is the perpetrator truly sorry for what he has done, for the untimely death of his victim and the pain and suffering of loved ones -- or is he scared for himself, and sorry for his punishment? It might be easier if all killers were like Kayla Gerdes, the unlicensed and allegedly drugged van driver on Long Island who initially took solace in that her victim, at 69, had lived a long time before Gerdes ran her down in her own front yard.

I hate to say it, but something like anger rises in me when I hear victims say that punishing a deadly driver won't bring their beloved back to life. Would the same be said had the killer been careless with a gun, or a knife, or a crane, rather than a motor vehicle? And what of future victims whose lives might be saved by keeping a killer off the road? Forgiveness is intensely personal, and it does not necessarily equate to absolution -- no one is suggesting that Luis Guamal be pardoned for his crime -- but dismissing the value of justice does have a way of cheapening life.

I was raised on southern car culture at a time when aftermarket tachometers were as common as ashtrays and drunk driving was either joked about or spoken of in hushed tones, often in the aftermath of the latest "accident." As I have been been affected by the consequences of traffic violence, so have I wreaked havoc myself. Less than two weeks after getting my license -- the insanity of putting 16-year-olds behind the wheel unsupervised is a topic for another day -- I was the catalyst behind a highway collision that injured another driver. I wasn't drunk, or high, nor was I at that moment behaving badly. I was simply a child with more responsibility than experience. I also escaped relatively unscathed. Sure, I received a ticket, and my insurance (which my parents paid) went up. But there I was, back behind the wheel in a matter of days. Though I was in fact sorry for what I had done, only years later, when I mostly ditched my car and walking became my primary mode, did I consistently begin driving, as my elders would say, like I had some damn sense.

There were mitigating factors -- note how easy it is to assume the mantle of victimhood -- including a terrifically dangerous intersection that no longer exists. Still, at minimum I should have lost my license until age 18. If the crash had been more serious, if someone had been killed, from this vantage point I think probation of some sort would have been in order, in addition to a lengthy suspension of driving privileges. Something, anything, that would have kept me off the road until I learned my lesson.

Reader Larry Littlefield wrote recently that Streetsblog's Weekly Carnage column caused him to be "more concerned than ever that [he] might somehow run over someone while driving." No kidding, Larry. I know of other readers who don't drive at all for fear of hitting a pedestrian or cyclist. I see driving itself, with all its harmful externalities and potential for so much immediate damage, as an act of violence, and though I don't drive all that often, I still do it. When I drive now, I do my best to drive like a pedestrian. Like I have some damn sense. The last thing on earth I ever want to be is forgiven.

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