It was a New Year’s Eve party. She was a high school senior. She left in her car. Three minutes later, she was dead.
A drunk driver killed her, just a mile from her home. She never saw him coming. He was not even injured. When he crawled out through his window and saw the wreckage, according to a witness, he said, “Boy, am I in trouble now.”
The girl’s parents were called. They came quickly. On the way over, they prayed it was a mistake. When they saw her blue Volkswagen, crushed like paper, they stopped praying.
They wanted justice. They went to court. They could have sought millions in damages; at first they did. Then they changed their minds. This was all they asked: The young man who killed their child must write a check for $1 a week in her name. Do it every Friday, because that was the day she died. For 18 years, because that was how long she lived.
One dollar a week. Mail it to their house. The driver readily agreed.
This happened eight years ago in Fairfax, Va. It made news last month, because the man has stopped making payments. It is not the first time. In fact, he began missing them within two years of the crash. For a while he sent his father’s checks. For a while he sent nothing. For a while he sent dollar bills.
Last year, the checks began to bounce.
Then they stopped coming altogether.
The girl is still dead. Remember the crime
“All we wanted was a visible sign that he remembered what he had done,’ says Patricia Herzog, whose daughter, Susan, was killed that night. “When we first suggested the payments, he was very quick to accept the idea. It was better than a million dollar lawsuit. But since then, well, it seems like he just doesn’t want to do it. To put it bluntly, he keeps forgetting.”
So the Herzogs took him back to court. This time the man, Kevin Tunell, 26, arrived with his lawyer and two boxes of signed checks, which extended to the year 2001 — or one year more than what was agreed to. “Here,” he said. He offered them as a compromise. The Herzogs refused. The point, they said, was to write Susan’s name every week, to remember the crime, just as they must remember it every day.
So Tunell took the witness stand, before a judge. He began to cry. He said he was not trying to hurt anyone, but that he was still haunted by the crash and the weekly payments were such painful reminders. That, the Herzogs figured, was the point. But the judge, a man named Jack Stevens, turned to the parents and questioned “the wisdom” of their persistence. “To err is human, to forgive divine,” he said.
They should have knocked over his chair.
Why is it always the victims who are asked to adjust? What did they do to deserve their fate? In ancient societies, if a man was caught stealing, they cut off his hand. Accused of blasphemy, they cut out his tongue.
Now for taking the life of an innocent girl, Kevin Tunell — who, because he was convicted as a juvenile and a first-time offender, never spent a day in jail — was asked to pay $936. Over 18 years.
That was too much? Pain never goes away
In a recent film called “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a man is haunted after murdering his lover. For weeks he cannot sleep. He is on the verge of confessing. Then one night, he does sleep. And the next morning he wakes up, and the birds are singing, the sun is shining. Suddenly, it doesn’t hurt so much. He is safe. He is free. He goes on as if nothing ever happened.
Could we really forget a life so easily? Could one dollar a week become an annoyance? “He never knew Susan; he was drunk when it happened,’ says Mrs. Herzog. “It’s hard for him to feel bad about a stranger.
“People ask us how we felt when we got his checks. The truth is, we didn’t feel anything new. Our pain never went away. If he only endured his once a week, he’s lucky.”
Let it be known that Tunell was seriously drunk at the time of the crash
(.17 on the breathalizer.) Let it also be known that the Herzogs are not teetotalers. They simply do not drink and drive. They have another daughter who was hit by a drunk driver and spent nine months in a wheelchair and on crutches. The man who hit her had no insurance. He has since disappeared.
All they want is some justice for their child, a little piece of soul for one that was lost. Judge Stevens — who said, “I take no joy in this” — sentenced Tunell to 30 days in prison for missing his payments, but suspended it pending an appeal. And now they wait.
The irony, as Patricia Herzog says, “is that this man never went to jail for killing our daughter. But he might end up there for forgetting her.”
Then again, which is the greater crime?