Panelists to drive home sobering message

A Rock Hill native is bringing a program that helped her cope with her husband and son's drunken-driving-related deaths to York County.

The day after Christmas, 1996, Hester Benitez was dropped off at work in Las Vegas by her husband and son. Her son was a junior at Eastern Washington University, and they were on the way to the airport so he could fly back for a basketball game.

Her family's car was struck by an underage man driving drunk at 80 mph in a 35 mph zone. That man ran a red light and sent the car into a telephone pole and kept going, she said. Her son was killed on impact, and her husband died later at the hospital's trauma center. She buried them both on New Year's Eve.

Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett wants to give Benitez and other area victims a chance to help combat drunken driving with a new program called Stop Impaired Driving. Brackett announced plans Wednesday for victim- impact sessions, spearheaded by Benitez. The program will be funded by fees paid by DUI offenders.

During panel sessions, various victims will share the impact drunken driving has had on their lives and show photos from the crash scenes.

"I made up my mind they weren't going to die in vain," said Benitez, who moved back to Rock Hill two years ago. "It's therapeutic. It helped me get through the anger, get through the sadness."

The man who killed Benitez's husband and son was sentenced to eight to 20 years in prison and was released earlier this year, Benitez said.

Benitez was involved with a similar program in Las Vegas that since has been mandated for offenders in Nevada, she said. Brackett hopes the program is received as well in South Carolina as it has been in Nevada for more than 20 years.

"We're focused on trying to deter drunk-driving incidents in York County by showing offenders what the effects are," Brackett said. "It also allows victims to stand up before offenders to show first-hand impacts. Nothing held back; no sugar-coated photos."

The first victim-impact panel, which will feature the Nevada program's creator, Sandy Heverly, is scheduled for May 1 at 6 p.m. at York Technical College's Baxter Hood Center.

Brackett is hoping judges and legislators attend this initial panel, encourage making it part of a first-time DUI offender's sentence and incorporate it in state legislation. He said he'd like to have panels every five weeks.

Some drunken-driving offenders will be at the first panel, but Brackett hopes future panels will be full of drunken-driving offenders and teens and young adults caught drinking underage.

Benitez said she's had people approach her after Las Vegas panels and say they're done driving after drinking.

"We're not going to stop everyone," she said. "But we'll stop some people. I think we will make a difference here, and I'm excited to get started."

Brackett said the emotional nature of the program doesn't jive with every victim who was injured or lost family and friends because of drunken driving. But he's confident people will want to participate on these panels.

Anyone victimized by drunken driving who is interested in sharing their story is encouraged to call Ann Melton at 628-3028.