For the past 17 months, I have been fighting to try to get the case against the drunk driver who hit and killed my mom pushed through the justice system. I made countless calls to the District Attorney’s office, the DPS, the trooper who responded to the crash, Victim Services of two separate offices, and our MADD representative. I begged and pleaded and did whatever was asked of me, whether it be dropping everything to head to Tyler on a moment’s notice or writing statement after statement. I fought so hard for all of these months, and we finally went to trial on September 25th to face the woman who took my mom’s life away. I expected to feel a lot of things, but forgiveness was not one of them.
I am writing this blog post to explain what happened in that courtroom, because I have gotten angry calls and messages from family and friends who do not understand why I am at peace with the verdict, and I also wanted to clarify a few things. So let me tell you:
It took me a while to find the courage to walk into the courtroom on September 25th, because I was terrified of seeing the woman who destroyed my life for the very first time. I was shaking and terrified, and tears flooded the moment I laid eyes on her. I sat in the front row with my brothers and a few members of Gary McCrary’s family (the man who was killed alongside my mom that night). Jessica Vass, the defendant, sat just 3 feet in front of me. The maximum sentence was 20 years in prison, and that is what I wanted without a doubt. I wanted her to sit behind bars for the greater part of her life and think about what she had done to us. To my mama. To Gary.
The first day of trial began with The State’s opening remarks and evidence. He introduced my mom and Gary via photographs and showed pictures taken by the state trooper that night. Photos that will be engrained in my memory for the rest of my life. We heard things that were very, very difficult to hear, and learned new things that were impossible to accept. Our prosecutor called several members of mine and Gary’s family to the stand- myself included- to be their voices and to tell the jury who they were and what they meant to our families. I watched Jessica listen to every word, and look at every photograph with pure sadness. It was very apparent that each word from the victims’ families devastated her to her core. After the prosecutor called his last witness, the defense began calling his. We heard from Jessica’s mother, brother, ex-husband, close friend, church mentor, therapist, daughter’s school teacher, children’s babysitter, and a few other experts who had been seeing her following the crash. I have retyped the following sentence about a dozen times: Jessica is a good person. I hesitate to type that, because if you were not present in that courtroom, you might say that I am naive and gullible. Those are Jessica’s people; of course they are going to say wonderful things about her. But the thing is, I believed every word. The emotion and heartache that accompanied each testimony was raw and completely heartfelt, nothing even close to an act. Each person on the stand gave their account of the moment they found out what had happened, along with their first conversations with Jessica following the crash. Each person, including the experts (who even the prosecutor had a relationship with and trusted completely), testified that Jessica had taken full accountability and was very remorseful and ashamed of what she had done. She has been seeing a therapist, a life coach/ rehabilitation sponsor, and speaking to groups of children and adults to share her testimony in hopes of trying to prevent this nightmare from happening to other families. After we recessed for the day, I walked onto the same elevator as Jessica and her attorneys. I turned and hugged her without saying a word. I still didn’t know how I felt at that point, but I knew that I felt sorry for her. She was obviously suffering a tremendous amount of guilt that I can’t even begin to comprehend. She cried as she held me tight and whispered “I’m so sorry” over and over again.
I walked off of the elevator and was asked by the prosecutor to meet in his office. He asked me if I had changed my mind on wanting the maximum sentence. My response was “absolutely not.” My mom and Gary deserved justice for what had happened to them, and so did their families. The day ended after the prosecutor read letters that Jessica had written our families shortly after the crash. We learned that my mom was coherent as she laid on the ground waiting on the ambulance, and that Jessica held her hand and tried to comfort her during that time. This was extremely difficult to hear.
Day two of trial began with more witnesses to testify on Jessica’s behalf, and then the moment came for Jessica to get on stand. She had the option to plead the 5th and not say a word, but she chose to get on stand and possibly implicate herself further by the prosecutor. When the defense asked her why she chose to testify (which is rare in this type of case), she said, “because I want the families to know what happened that night and how sorry I am” through fast-falling tears. She started to tell us what happened the night of April 12th, starting with where she had been that day. As she started to explain what happened as she got on the toll where my mom and Gary were changing a tire, she bowed her head and sobbed uncontrollably. It was obviously so hard for her to get the words out, but she did. She looked at me with complete sadness as she talked about my mom and her beautiful blue eyes, and continued to look me straight in the eye as she spoke with tears streaming down her face. Even though I was completely hysterical and being consoled by my brother (who was in the same shape as I was), she respectfully spoke directly to us, breaking her heart entirely. It took her a while to get through talking about what had happened, and when she stopped, she bowed her head in her hands and cried. It was absolutely gut-wrenching. There was not a dry eye in the courtroom- the jury included. And it most certainly was not an act. She took full accountability, never once blaming the road conditions or where my mom was parked. She made it clear that they are not here because of a choice she made. When the judge recessed for the day, my family gathered and talked about what we had just witnessed. One thing we all agreed on was that Jessica was a good person who made a terrible, irreversible mistake that permanently damaged our families. My heart was changed.
The morning after, the last day of trial, I called some of Gary’s family to ask how they felt (they, too, wanted maximum sentencing from the very beginning). They stated that their hearts were also changed after her testimony. Knowing that the majority of us were considering probation as an offer, I called the prosecutor and asked if our families could all meet and discuss before we proceeded with sentencing. I was hoping that we could all agree on this, but we couldn’t. Although the majority wanted to offer probation, there were a few from both families who still wanted prison time. And that’s okay; everyone is entitled to their feelings, and especially in a matter as serious as this, it was important for us all to be on the same page. But we weren’t, so we ultimately decided to let the jury sentence her. The defense attorney requested to meet with me, and asked if he could call me back on stand to testify that I had forgiven her. Let me explain: he could have called me on stand without my approval as I was subpoenaed as a witness. But he wanted to respect my wishes, and let me decide. Knowing that both of my brothers were not on the same page regarding probation, I let them decide. You see- my mom has three children, and it was not fair for me to represent her when all three of us were divided. It was decided that I not get back on stand, so I didn’t. Trial was delayed a few hours due to our meetings, but after both sides gave their closing arguments and the jury exited the courtroom, Jessica approached me. I was having a hard time with possibly witnessing a good person being sent off to prison for 20 years, and tried everything in my power to save her. I looked at her and said, “I’m sorry, I tried really hard.” What she said next is something I will never forget: “NO! Do NOT apologize to me ever again. I did this. I took your mom and Gary away. This is my fault. This is not your fault. I deserve whatever sentence the jury decides. I did this, not you. Do not ever feel sorry for me.” She hugged me and cried, and answered “yes” when I asked her if my mom held her hand back. I was at peace for the first time in 17 months.
During our wait on the jury to make a decision in her sentencing, mine and Gary’s family waited. During our wait, we ran into several members of Jessica’s family, who embraced us and offered their condolences (each one of them shared tears with us as they did so). Robert wanted to meet Jessica (he had to be in a separate waiting area with Beckham throughout the trial as they do not allow children in the courtroom), so we walked across the courthouse where her family was gathering, and she met my little family. She promised, through tears, that she would continue to honor Gary and my mom no matter what happened to her. That she would continue to speak to groups of children and adults in hope that she will prevent this from happening to other families. The jury came back in after a few hours of deliberating, and the verdict was read: Jessica would serve a probated ten year sentence. This means that she would go into custody that day and serve 120 days. She will then be on (strict) probation for the next 10 years. It is important for me to note that the JURY made this decision; my feelings had absolutely no bearing on their sentencing. They were never made aware of what I was fighting for, or even that I had chosen to forgive.
Although that is what I was hoping for, I felt completely empty after the verdict was read. The fight for my mom was over, and all that was left was the open wound of our loss. It was a very confusing, hard week; one that I am so thankful is behind us. Mine and Gary’s families had a chance to get back on stand and read our Victim Impact Statements to her. She listened intently to every word, and cried as she further learned what a devastating toll her decision had on us all.
My mom had one of the most forgiving hearts of anyone I have ever met, and while I cannot ask her what she would want, I just know in my heart that she would forgive. I know that she would not want a good person to go to prison for 20 years for a horrible, tragic mistake; the worst mistake of her entire life. She will carry the weight of guilt and remorse for the rest of her life for the decision she made that night. I truly feel in my heart that Jessica will serve my mom and Gary for as long as she lives, and continue to pay tribute to them in her public testimonies. THAT is honoring my mom and Gary more than her being confined to a prison cell for years. Gary’s family and most of mine agree that that is what they would both want.
To my family and close friends who disagree with the jury’s verdict: I hope one day you can find forgiveness in your hearts. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or excusing what happened, but rather letting go of anger to allow healing to begin. Although I have chosen to forgive, I am still angry that this happened to my mom and Gary, and I am still angry that they are not here. That will never change. However, I have decided to let to of the anger I have had toward Jessica to allow my own heart to heal. I hope that you pay witness to Jessica as she moves forward in this journey to spread awareness, and I hope you will join her- and me, because that is exactly what I intend to do. I will continue to root for her and support her in this journey; for myself and for my mom, Gary, and all of the families who have been destroyed by drinking and driving.
To my mama: I love you with every fiber of my being. Thank you for being such a huge beaming light in my life, and for the example you’ve left that has brought me to peace. I will never, ever stop missing you for as long as I live.