Oklahoma offenders listen to stories of drunken drivers, victims

by Robert Medley Published: May 6, 2012

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.

Panels started

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.

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