Panel permits families to share their stories with DUI offenders

by Eileen Bailey

Betty Walters stood before the group dressed in her T-shirt and slacks looking like most 19-year-olds. But it was her words that made her seem old beyond her years.

Walters, speaking before about 16 first-time driving under the influence of alcohol offenders at a victim's panel in Tupelo, took a deep breath and began to tell the group about the singular event that robbed her of her youthfulness in an instant.

"I was 18 years old but I felt like an old woman. It felt like someone took the breath out of me," Walters said.

She was talking about the first time she saw her sister, Charlam Hopper, in an intensive care room at the North Mississippi Medical Center.

Hopper and her husband had been traveling home Dec. 30, 1995, when a man who had been drinking crossed three lanes of a four-lane highway and crashed into the Hoppers' car, Walters said. Charlam Hopper suffered several injuries, including severe closed head injuries.

"She had tubes everywhere," Walters said. "She had a tube coming out of her head to drain the fluid off her brain. They had to cut her shoulder to insert a tube."

Walters, who had just gotten married and moved to Winona, immediately made the trip to Tupelo to see her sister at the medical center.

"You could not imagine what goes through your head for an hour to an hour and 15 minutes of driving to the hospital. I didn't know if she was dead," she said.

It was several hours before Walters was able to see her sister in intensive care. "When I walked into that room you could not have convinced me that was a human being," she said. "In one instant this young man took everything I knew about my sister from me."

As she spoke, Walters would stop to put her thoughts together before she continued with her message. When she continued, she would look around the room at the DUI offenders sentenced to attend the two-hour meeting at the Lee County Justice Court Center.

A mother's loss

Walters and her mother, Janette Copes, also of West Point, both addressed the group. At the beginning of her presentation, Copes held up a picture of her daughter, Charlam. "Pass this around," she said of the picture. "It's important that you look at her eyes."

The picture of Hopper was taken her senior year of high school The picture showed a brunette with bright blue eyes. Hopper, who has two children, was at the time of the accident studying to be a nurse.

"She would have been a good nurse," Copes said.

Copes then passed around a picture of Hopper's two sons, both with the same bright blue eyes of their mother. Copes said Hopper has no memory of her life before her accident - she doesn't even remember her own children.

The last picture Copes passed around was that of Hopper as she is today, more than a year after the accident. Hopper, who can't bathe herself or walk and who must wear a diaper, is shown sitting on the couch. But the light in her eyes is no longer there.

"It's so tragic. They always say 'You always have your memories,'® Copes said, "But she doesn't have them anymore."

Firsthand knowledge

The panel, which was begun several months ago, meets once a month and serves as a place for area justice, county and city court judges to send first- or second-time DUI offenders as part of their sentence.

There are nine such panels sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving across the state. These panels are designed to give offenders a chance to see firsthand the consequences of drinking and driving, said Rodger Moore, the organization's state executive director.

Offenders are required to register at the beginning of the panel and pay a $20 fee to help cover the cost of paperwork. The speakers, like Copes and Walters, appear on a voluntary basis, Moore said.

While some statistics were offered to offenders, such as the fact that 361 Mississippians were killed in 1995 because of alcohol-related accidents, the main purpose is for offenders to hear personal stories about what drinking and driving does.

The offenders at Monday night's panel also listened to other incidents involving drunken drivers. During several emotional moments, some of the offenders, who remained silent throughout the presentations, shook their heads.

Tupelo Police Officer Joe Weeks, who worked with the Metro DUI Unit for three years, said panels like the one sponsored by MADD provide offenders with information that would affect them more.

"It's going to have more of an impact coming from a victim," Weeks said. "They are more likely to listen to them as ordinary citizens than to me. They would think I was here to preach to them."

Don't drink and drive

The overriding message at the meeting was not to drink and drive.

"All it takes is for you to have one drink and get behind the wheel of a car²" Walters said. "If (a crash) doesn't happen the first time, or second or third or fourth it will at some time. You can keep it from happening by not getting behind the wheel."

After the presentation, one of the offenders approached Copes and Walters. Mitchell Ashmore, 36, of Tupelo asked the women for the victim's name.

"I plan to put it on the prayer list at my church," he said.

Ashmore said he had consumed several drinks and decided to drive home when he was stopped and cited for DUI.

"I knew I was drunk and I just wanted to go home," he said. "I didn't' have the judgment I should have had."

When asked how the panel affected him, Ashmore said, "I won't drink and drive anymore."

"I wouldn't want to do that to anyone," he said.

The volunteers at the panel said they weren't expecting miracles.

"If I can get just though to one person, it was worth it," alters said.

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