The driver who hit me was sentenced to two years in prison. But I was sentenced to life.

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I had rehearsed the speech several times the night before, but the judge still had to ask me to slow down as I read my statement. As I went to court, the driver who hit me over two years ago, I was out of my line of sight, but I could still feel him to my left and wondered if my words would impact him or anyone else. I was wondering if friends and supporters who were watching the proceedings via a video stream could see us both at the same time. I wondered if the few friends I had asked to attend in person could see how my hands were shaking.

In July 2019, on an unusually dark afternoon in Boulder, Colo., The assailant crashed into my old pickup truck. The driver ran away and left me in a ditch by the side of the road with injuries so bad I almost died: internal bleeding, collapsed lungs, 35 broken bones, a concussion and a spinal injury spinal cord that paralyzed my left leg and some organs. Out of courage and luck, or maybe due to higher horsepower, I have become a rare example of what happens when a van hits a cyclist and does not cause death in some way. another one.

I haven’t been emotionally prepared for everything that has happened since that day and so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the feelings I felt when, after almost two and a half years, I confronted my attacker in court. But it turned out that I was not prepared at this point too.


At relative speed, police located the vehicle and impounded it, but the owner of the van denied knowledge of an accident. He also stubbornly refused to explain how pieces of his turn signal got into the crash scene, or to provide an explanation of who was driving other than himself. Police eventually issued an arrest warrant on November 9, 2020, but there was no immediate arrest or meaningful update.

At some point in the process, I lost all hope of justice and resigned myself to the idea that it would be another driver to inflict fatal injuries on a cyclist and get away with it. And that I would be forced to pay for the results of his destructive behavior in the form of endless medical bills that arrive at my house.

The author in the hospital (Photo: courtesy of Andrew Bernstein)

I stopped sending periodic requests to the Boulder District Attorney and focused on things I could control. Just as I had once devoted myself to the training that allowed me to compete in elite level track races – international races and national championships – I now worked diligently to improve my fitness, however limited it was. I went to various types of physical therapy up to eight times a week and sought out doctors to help with chronic pain resulting from my unbalanced paraplegia. (Today I made some progress but still dream of being pain free.) I bought an e-gravel bike and went on rides that were once routine but felt new after months gone by. to stay on flat paths. I walked so much that, with no sensation in one foot, I sustained a stress fracture in my calcaneus, my first major setback in the recovery process. Still, I trained all summer to hike when I was first fourteen, and in September I reached the summit of Mount Bierstadt at 14065 feet.

I wondered if he thought he would get away with the crime.

Six more months passed before the driver was accidentally arrested on June 19, 2021 for an unrelated traffic violation and taken into police custody. Informally, the prosecutor’s office sent an email to say that he had been arrested.

He appeared in court the following week for a procedural recording which I watched via video conference. He was exactly as I had imagined him: middle-aged, white, with a round stomach and a graying beard that spanned the weary lines of the world. He looked very serious, staring intently at the camera, eyes glassy and still as the judge dealt with a number of other cases. I wondered if he thought he would get away with the crime. Or if he really believed he hadn’t done anything wrong. Of course, he wasn’t called to speak, so I kept asking myself questions.

With the DA’s office, I discussed the charges against him, the possibility of a trial, the possibility of a plea deal, and various options for punishment. When asked, I said I hoped he could never drive again. And I asserted that he should take full and continuing financial responsibility for my care, although I know financial compensation is usually part of a civil action and I almost certainly would not sue – he was a man. without insurance and without resources worth trying. prosecute.

The penalty of not driving was not an option available to the court, given the specific charges to which the driver pleaded guilty: leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving and a criminal attempt to leave the scene of an accident. ‘an accident. The disciplinary measures available ranged from restorative justice — talking to teens about safe driving or something like that — to jail.


After a few months of deliberation, during which I expressed my wishes, which varied from day to day, the prosecutor made him an offer: to plead guilty to reduced charges and accept a two-year prison sentence. plus parole and restitution, which everyone agreed I was unlikely to receive. His lawyer said the deal was better than a trial, and the court set a date for the arraignment.

I didn’t have to go to court until he was officially sentenced. In fact, my lawyer advised me against it, telling me that most of his clients are disappointed at how little impact their words have. Despite his advice, I had planned to speak, knowing that the driver would receive a previously agreed sentence. I wouldn’t expect anything from the court, but I still wanted to declare publicly, and for the general public, how much this criminal had taken from me.

He will be released from prison long before the end of my life sentence.

I arrived in court, in person this time, on October 22, 2021. I read remarks to the presiding judge, describing my initial trauma, the physical pain I am living with, and other chronic symptoms of my spinal cord injury— permanent paralysis of one leg, my bladder, bowels and sexual function – the cost of dealing with it all, and also my belief that there was not much justice that day.

The driver, who spent two and a half years on the run, then had the opportunity to speak, and he dragged himself to the lectern. “I am sorry for everyone involved in this incident. I take full responsibility for this action, and I would like to apologize to Andrew, ”he stammered before walking away. I had no expectations for him either, of course, but his few words didn’t match any of my experiences: the way he tortured my loved ones while I struggled to hold on to life at first, or the hurt that he had caused me physically and emotionally. He did not try to explain his flight or his lie to the police. He sat down in the empty jury box to wait for the sheriff’s deputies, who would take him into custody.

I was a little reassured by the judge’s agreement on my most important point: that a sentence of two years in prison and parole does not help me and does not prevent him from driving someone. other when it comes out. She agreed that he would be released from prison well before the end of my life sentence.

Cycling at the hit-and-run site (Photo: courtesy of Andrew Bernstein)

The hammer fell and I left to get drunk.

I don’t know what I expected from the arraignment, but I felt terrible after the court. A friend from out of state observed that most of the people we spoke to about the procedure over the next few days projected the same set of feelings on me: They said things like, “This must. be such a relief to have this behind you! “or” Isn’t it nice to have a shutdown? “or” It’s not enough, but aren’t you happy he’s going to jail? “

I didn’t feel any of these things.

I can only hope that when he gets back behind the wheel he doesn’t hit another person. If he does, it will be entirely because justice could not get him out of the way.

I felt sad. I felt angrier than I had been in months, and not at the driver, oddly enough, but at the utter inability of the criminal justice system to inflict fair punishment. Most of all, I felt hopeless with the huge bills associated with my rehabilitation – approximately $ 20,000 per year, after my health insurance premiums, for each of the past two years and with no indication of hindsight – now knowing with some certainty that J had gotten all the help I was going to get. It’s a lot to be 37, to consider 60 or 70 years older, knowing that my ability to take care of myself will depend on my ability to stay in high paying jobs that offer good private health insurance.

Worse yet, when so many people around me seemed happy that there had been a punishment – more jail time! . I was just as paralyzed as the day before the arraignment, my hopes for a full recovery just as low and my needs just as great.

I have done my best to treat these comments as misguided wishes for happiness. But my inner New Yorker finally broke free when someone remarked, “You must be happy this is all over.”

“It’s not over, and I have nothing to be happy about,” I said.

It wasn’t nice, but it’s my truth.

The author on a hike (Photo: courtesy of Andrew Bernstein)

The only proper punishment for someone who has shown so little interest in being a safe driver is to take them off the road forever, which I said in court. But in this country we give cars such a priority that a sanction of this nature is considered incredibly severe. Therefore, our society’s best solution is to put him in jail. He will likely be able to drive again soon after his release, and I can only hope that when he gets back behind the wheel he doesn’t hit another person. If he does, it will be entirely because justice could not get him out of the way.

At the start of this ordeal, I was predisposed to find a way to forgive this person. But with all that I have lost, how can I forgive someone who does not acknowledge their actions, even if they plead guilty?

And how will his incarceration restore my body’s function? How will his time in prison improve my situation in any way?

Of course not.

For surviving this assault, I was sentenced to life imprisonment, and his two-year sentence will be much shorter. Injustice is something I will have to learn to accept. I will also learn to live with the unease I feel vis-à-vis the justice system. Maybe I’ll forgive my abuser once the job is done. Or maybe not.

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