This is the third in a three-part series by drunk driving victim Erin Rollins:
I looked the defendant dead in the eyes and read the closing portion of my victim impact statement. "Your behavior and seeming lack of remorse has been the hardest for me to work through. But I want you to know that I forgive you even though I don't think you deserve it. Because, then again, Jesus forgave me and I didn't deserve it."
I stepped off of the stand feeling empowered, yet emotionally exhausted at the same time. I slowly made my way back to my seat.
I braced for the defendant to decline to say anything. Weeks leading up to the final court date, I had prepared myself that even if she didn't acknowledge what she had done, my pain remained valid.
I knew I needed to forgive completely regardless of the outcome. Through my healing journey, I had believed a lie that told me that I needed her to feel remorse to validate my experience. And believing this challenged my ability to move forward.
Holding onto resentful feelings over the offender’s lack of remorse threatened the joy I had in God’s answer to my specific prayers, and the hope I had in Him to use something terrible for good. Focusing on what the offender wasn’t doing distracted me from being at peace with God and myself, and trusting that my pain had a very important purpose.
Coincidently only a week prior, the minister of my church gave a sermon on forgiveness. I learned that wholehearted forgiveness means letting go of resentful feelings towards someone, whether they deserve it or not. It does not mean forgetting what happened, or excusing the defendant’s actions. It meant freeing myself from the bitterness that tried to assimilate control over the defendant, her choices and the situation. It also meant giving myself permission to move on with life, to fully love my husband-to-be, and to extend myself the grace to accept the newfound changes to my body. By forgiving the offender completely, I also gave myself room to mourn my losses, but not stay there.
I was finally able to let go of the last piece that I had been holding onto for those years. Even if she didn't apologize, I had released her, and myself, from feelings of resentment for her lack of remorse.
Then the impossible happened. The defendant got up and turned to look at me. She began to weep, and with what seemed to be an unpremeditated statement, she said, "I am not going to stand here and make excuses for what I did. All I can say is that I messed up and that I am so sorry, Erin, for you and all those who have come to support you."
Through tears, she continued. "You are right Erin, I can live my life once I serve my sentence, but you will never have your life back, and for that I am so sorry."
The judge told her to go with the officer. Unafraid and feeling compelled, I jumped up, and walked as quickly as possible through the glass door into the courtroom.
"Wait," I exclaimed. "Jeanne, can I hug her?"
The state's attorney replied. "You'll have to ask her."
The defendant turned towards me. I approached her.
"Can I hug you," I asked vulnerably.
"Yes," she replied. We embraced.
The courtroom lost it. My mom and her mom sobbed loudly and When I walked back through the courtroom to the benches, I noticed that my mother had rushed over to her mother and they were embracing. My family and I then hugged every other member of her family. Everyone who had come with her all said they were sorry. Her lawyer walked up to me, hugged me with tears in his eyes and apologized. Dennis later told me that her lawyer had shaken his hand, and told Dennis that "he had been wrong."
According to my sister and everyone in the audience, there wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom, including the officers and another person waiting for her case to be called. The judge quickly exited the stand after seeing us embrace, and with a crack in his voice, asked for a recess.
In that moment, I was freed in so many ways. Freed because I had said what I had intended to say, and was able to share the story that for two years I had kept pent up inside.
But when I look back now, I have no regrets. Did I call this tragedy on myself because I gave God permission to do what he thought fit, and glorify himself? No. But I did get what I asked for.
Forgiveness is a gift. I not only gave the offender the best gift before prison, I received many in return—the ability to enter marriage freed from the bondage of bitterness, and the freedom to extend myself the grace to accept what was lost and move on with life.
My physical demonstration of forgiveness turned out to be the most healing and powerful moment of my life. I demonstrated God’s love to a stranger who didn’t deserve forgiveness, because God did that for me.
MADD’s statement on faith and forgiveness: MADD is an organization not related to any faith or denomination, we serve everyone regardless of their personal beliefs.
We do recognize that faith can play a part in someone’s healing journey and wanted Erin to share how it played a part in her own, forgiveness can also very from person to person. Many people find that forgiveness is something that they embrace or reject, MADD respects each person’s choices about their own healing journey which may or may not include forgiveness. We thank Erin for sharing her own healing journey.
Erin's story is also featured in Chicago Now.
We, the partners, attorneys, and staff at Bachus & Schanker, are in awe of the work Mothers Against Drunk Driving does every single day in their efforts to stop drunk driving and to make sure the victims of drunk driving crashes are supported, helped, and acknowledged. We are proud to be MADD Colorado’s Statewide Sponsor and to know that our financial contributions have helped MADD to provide in excess of 6000 hours of support to victims of drunk driving crashes. We are honored to work with the amazing and passionate group that comprises the MADD Colorado and MADD National teams. Lastly, we LOVE to Walk Like MADD, in Denver, in Colorado Springs, and in Northern Colorado.
Why do we walk? We walk for many reasons...
We walk to remember and support the victims of drunk driving crashes. We walk to share MADD’s message that drunk driving is a 100% preventable crime. We walk so that those who might not otherwise have a voice, have a voice. We walk because drunk driving has life-altering and irrevocable consequences. We walk to help those people we can help. We walk because we want to make our nation’s roadways safer for everyone. We walk to honor our law enforcement officers and applaud their hard work. We walk because we want to be agents of change.
You can sign up and donate to the Denver Walk Like MADD here.
For Mothers Against Drunk Driving® and for me as National President, it was an honor to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on June 14. It was an honor to be the voice of all the victims MADD has, and will, serve. It was clear from the Senators’ comments that they value and the opinion of MADD. Many of them said they were proud to work with MADD and thanked me for sharing my personal story.
The hearing concerned the development of autonomous vehicle technology. And while the other three witnesses were experts on automobiles and the technology, MADD was clearly considered to be a major stakeholder because successful development of this technology could lead to the end of drunk driving -- a goal that we have worked toward for more than 36 years.
I was there to encourage development of this exciting technology and offer four recommendations for the Senators to consider:
Support federal regulatory framework. It is important that the playing field be level and states should leave the self-driving car safety issues to the automotive safety experts at the federal level. To that end, it is critical that the Congress and/or the administration provide the necessary guidance and regulations to the autonomous vehicle community in order to allow a national roll-out of this technology. Emphasis must be placed on ensuring that the technology is safe, and that processes are followed to ensure that rigorous safety standards are followed, and that effective methods for educating the public on technologies are developed. We believe the DOT/NHTSA Autonomous Vehicle Policy issued last year is a good beginning for providing safety guidance to those companies developing Highly Automated Vehicles. MADD and others in the traffic safety community look forward to working with the Committee to help ensure that public safety is of the highest priority, that the development of the technology continues at a rapid pace, and that future public acceptance comes to fruition.
Support existing state regulatory system. The state role in autonomous vehicles is to continue doing what they do for conventional vehicles today. This includes titling, registration, insurance requirements, etc. States should not regulate the safety of autonomous vehicles because they do not have the technical expertise to do so and their involvement could hinder the technological progress in the deployment of this life-saving technology.
Support for level four and five autonomous technologies. For MADD’s purposes, it is important that vehicles achieve level four and level five automation (i.e., vehicles that do not require a human driver in at least certain environments or under certain conditions). Drunk driving is arguably the biggest killer on our roadways. Alcohol and drug impairment have lasting effects, so it is imperative for maximum safety that the car be able to completely take control and remove the driver from driving.
Support for evaluating the technology as it evolves. The Autonomous Vehicle Policy includes provisions for recording and sharing information on system capabilities and data on events, incidents, and crashes. These data can be used to enhance the safety benefits of the technology and should be standardized, anonymous, absent of propriety information, and made available not only to the federal government but also to states, researchers, and the public.
To be the voice of the victims to the members of the committee allowed me to convey the devastation that this 100% preventable crime still causes every day. My hope is that by witnessing to them, Congress will help move forward the development of autonomous vehicle technology, and that one day we can celebrate and say……NO MORE VICTIMS®.
February 7, 2007 was the day that forever changed Karen Mertes’ life path. Karen, a Lieutenant Colonel serving in the United States Air Force, was driving the speed limit on the interstate when she was struck from behind by a drunk driver traveling over 100 mph.
He had a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit and the crash resulted in both vehicles being totaled. The axle in Karen’s car snapped in half, and her vehicle’s undercarriage dragged creating sparks on the interstate for several hundreds of feet.
Karen remembers being horrified at the smell of burning rubber in her vehicle. “During this time which seemed like an eternity to me, as my life hung in the balance, I made a bargain with God. I promised God that if I were blessed to live, I would spend the rest of my life helping others.”
Karen survived the crash but sustained multiple brain bleeds and was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Her memory, cognitive functioning, and personality were all impacted. Karen remembers looking at herself in the mirror and no longer recognizing who she was. She underwent months of physical therapy, and after rehabilitation returned to work.
Karen holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and two Master’s Degrees in Business Administration, and Cost Estimating & Analysis. Her education and professional attributes provided her with the required experience to excel as a Lieutenant Colonel.
When Karen returned to work, she found that she could no longer perform the complex memory-driven cognitive tasks that her job required. She had to embark towards a different direction in her life, and though devastated that she had to leave a career that she loved and worked endlessly for, she made a commitment to use her story for others.
“In every situation we have a choice, to stay a victim or become victorious despite all odds. I chose to be better, not bitter.”
The driver that made the choice to drink and drive and injured Karen, continued to make choices that harmed her. Before the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) results came back, he fled the state. The news was heart breaking. As she continued to face new challenges head-on and find ways to embrace her TBI, the person that caused so much pain and suffering chose to flee his problems and not be accountable for his actions.
Karen lived years thinking that he would never be punished, and that the criminal justice system was not looking for him or making the case a priority. She became her own advocate and it was through building relationships in the community that the Sheriff’s Department reached out to the State Attorney General and worked with other law enforcement agencies to extradite the offender back to the State of Florida. Five years after the crash, justice was served.
Since the crash, Karen has become a professional speaker sharing her story of triumph through tragedy with thousands of people across our country, inspiring audiences to achieve their highest potential no matter what. She is the founder of Fulfill Your Destiny, a nonprofit organization whose signature program awards ‘Business Builder Grants’ to entrepreneurs who have experienced life changing events of their own and desire to take their businesses to the next level. Karen continues to deliver on her promise and inspires others.
“I have come to own my TBI, I am determined not to be owned by it. My TBI has taken me to positive directions that I never would have gone. I found what most would have deemed obstacles have in fact become opportunities for different kinds of success.”