The prisoner was one of the “most broken” human beings Janella Tears had ever met.
With guards at his side and wearing his prison clothes, he showed up to tell his story.
That was 22 years ago, and the prisoner was the first speaker for the Victims' Impact Panel of Oklahoma Inc., which Tears started.
In 1990, the man had just started to serve a 15-year sentence on a second-degree murder conviction. He had been drunk when he left a bar and crashed into another motorist, killing the woman. She was a nurse on her way to work.
His spirit was broken, but he wanted to talk to others. Tears gave him the chance.
“It devastated him that he took a life,” recalls Tears, executive director of the panel.
Modeled after a program in Oregon, the Oklahoma panel was created to combat drunken driving. By court order, offenders convicted of drunken or intoxicated driving listen to others who have been convicted of those offenses and to testimonies from emergency responders and those whose lives have been changed from losing a loved one.
The prisoner from Granite “was very happy to talk on the panel,” and he continued doing so for 18 years, even after his prison sentence was served, Tears said.
“He wanted to tell his story. He did it because he felt he owed that to the family and he didn't want anyone to go through what he went through,” Tears said.
Tears was working as a secretary at the state Transportation Department in 1989 when she started the first panel in Oklahoma County; the second was in Rogers County.
Today there are panels in 50 counties with offices in Edmond, Elk City, Ada and Tulsa. About 60 people convicted of driving offenses attend panels twice a month at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond and Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City.
People who are ordered to attend a panel pay a fee of $50 to fund the program.
Seeing both sides
HarvieAustin, 42, of Edmond, is one of the panel speakers in Oklahoma County. Austin had four driving-under-the-influence convictions before he “got sober” in 2006. He was rebuilding his life when his son, Zachariah Austin, 16, was riding in a car that crashed at State Highway 152 and N Council Road on New Year's Day 2011.
The driver, who was drunk, and Zachariah both were killed.
“If I had not found sobriety, when Zach died I am pretty sure I would have went to the bottle and I would not be alive today,” Austin said. “I would have drank myself to death over my son's death.”
Life is different and much better sober, he said. Members of his church, Frontline, in downtown Oklahoma City, helped him get through the grief with compassion, he said. He has since started the Zachariah Project to help people with the expenses to bury children killed by drunk drivers.
Helping others by speaking on the panel helps him, too, he said.
“When I speak I know that maybe a kid I'm talking to or an offender will change their mind about something,” Austin said. “If I save one life by speaking then I know it is all worth it and my son did not die in vain.”
Making a difference
Tears said listening to tragic stories for 22 years has been anything but a downer.
“People think that must be a depressing job, but for me it is not,” she said. “It's uplifting because these people are making a difference.”
Tears said it was not hard to build the program in Oklahoma because of vast support from prosecutors and judges.
The panels also go to high schools. In Edmond, juveniles might be ordered to attend a panel for reckless driving, speeding, or possession of alcohol or drugs.
‘Out of a job'
Tears said she would like to “be put out of a job” one day when there are no more drunken or intoxicated drivers on the road.
But for now the program continues to grow each year.
It is rewarding, she said. And healing happens.
“Watching someone go from broken to whole again, that is my favorite part of the program,” Tears said.
If I had not found sobriety, when Zach died I am pretty sure I would have went to the bottle and I would not be alive today.”