I spent a day in West Palm Beach last week where I discovered that there are two times when you absolutely do not want to be in South Florida. The first is from May through September. The second is whenever you are driving while intoxicated. Here’s why.
Fourteen years ago, Lawrence was 23 years old. I have known him for most of his life, and he is my client. He was a good kid, with a great heart. He was indistinguishable, in many respects, from me and most of my friends at that age. Like many young men his age he liked to party and drink with his friends. However, he drank a little too much, and often miscalculated his blood-alcohol level before driving home. Each time he drove drunk he did more than break the law — he endangered the lives of everyone I know in Florida. But unless you never drink, you have almost certainly driven after a glass of wine or bottle of beer. Most of the people you know have done it — at least once. It’s not right or defensible on any level, but it’s true.
Here is where Lawrence and the rest of us part ways: Lawrence was arrested twice for DWI. The third time was in 1998, when, on the way home from a bar, he killed a 57-year old father of two children. Kill two people in New York while drunk driving? One young woman was sentenced to six months in prison. Another, who killed two young children while under the influence, served 2 1/2 years. Kill a police officer and seriously wound another in a drunken high-speed collision in New Jersey? Eight years — one year in Arkansas. Here’s a good one: In North Carolina, killing someone while driving drunk, after an earlier conviction for drunk driving in which you caused serious injury, buys you just three years in the hoosegow.
As for Lawrence, after he and the victim’s immediate family agreed to a guilty plea and a five-year sentence, the prosecutor rejected the deal and the case went to trial. Lawrence was convicted and sentenced to 19 years hard time. The average prison sentence for intentional, cold-blooded murder in Florida in 1998 was 16 years. Rape? Five and a half years. Even serial rapists serve less than 10 years. It is more time in prison than the average intentional murderer gets, anywhere in the United States.
Young Lawrence was not ready to spend most of his life in prison, so while his conviction was under appeal, he cut his monitoring bracelet and fled to Israel, using a fake passport. Living under an assumed name, he turned his life around. Got a job, stopped drinking (and driving), got married to a nice religious girl, and welcomed two young daughters. Despite being featured on America’s Most Wanted (really? of all the fugitives in the United States, this drunk driver is among the most wanted?), Lawrence was rehabilitated. Until last January, when he was arrested by U.S. and Israeli authorities. He awaits extradition to Florida to begin serving his 19-year sentence. He will be released when he is 55 years old. His young, innocent, sweet girls will be grown and married when he gets out of prison.
Please don’t remind me that his victim’s children also grew up without their dad. And do not tell me that his daughters’ plight is Lawrence’s own fault. And I do not want to hear that without harsh justice, everyone would flee in order to “turn their lives around” as free men. These points are all valid and true. But I don’t care. I spent my entire adult life pursuing justice — fighting with every fiber of my being to correct some wrong. Some of those years were spent prosecuting criminals just like Lawrence. But his sentence was ridiculous. His punishment is cruel and unusual. Now, that same punishment is being inflicted on his innocent sweet children who do not, under any theory of retribution, deserve their fate.
I do not know what I am advocating here and I don’t know what should be done. It is a story full of losers, each more sad than the next — but all are suffering because Lawrence did something criminally stupid. The body count started with his victim, and keeps growing. His parents will die with a strong sense of loss. I cannot imagine a lifetime of happiness and success drowned in a sea of despair that will define their entire existence. His wife can hardly just walk away from the man she loves simply because of a terrible, indefensible accident that happened years before they met. She will be chained to a prisoner for most of her adult life. And his daughters will not make the distinction between intentional murderer and their dad. Even if they can ignore a lifetime of bullying, they will not emerge unscathed.
I spent a day in South Florida meeting with the state attorney. I don’t even know what I am trying to accomplish. I cannot imagine how to end this story. For my part, I would like Lawrence to spend the next 19 years going from school to church to synagogue to community to my house, and tell his story. It guarantees that I will never drink and get behind the wheel again. That is a message that will surely be inculcated in my children. There’s the silver lining.
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