Drunken driver sentencing hasn’t softened loss of a popular youth
Friday, July 2nd, 2010
Issue 26, Volume 14.
The collision that killed Shane Smith nearly a year ago has rocked friends and family members on both coasts. It has spurred Smith’s father to become an activist against impaired driving, caused the teen’s mother to fall back upon her deep religious faith and left the youth’s grandfather grappling with pangs of guilt.
Smith died on his younger brother’s eighth birthday.
Two education-related funds – including a scholarship program for future Hamilton High graduates – have been launched in Smith’s memory.
Smith died July 27, 2009, shortly after the motorcycle he was driving was hit head-on by a speeding motorist who had drifted across a double yellow line of a rural New York state highway.
The 21-year-old driver of the car, who had been drinking alcohol and using heroin, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to three to 10 years in state prison.
It was the driver’s second conviction for drunken driving in less than a year, according to media reports from the Poughkeepsie area. A probation report indicated that the driver, Keith Edward Johnson, had activated the cruise control in his car before falling asleep at the wheel.
Smith’s third grade teacher was among those deeply touched by the death of the standout wrestler and football player.
"Shane was simply one of those kids everybody liked because he had a special sparkle, a pure joy for life that was contagious," Paola Canaday, Smith’s third grade teacher at Hamilton Elementary School, wrote in a letter to court officials. "I will forever cherish the memories of that kindhearted boy who always wore a smile."
Ann Mohn-Brimhall, who was Smith’s Social Science teacher at Hamilton High, noted the youth’s maturity, sensitivity and zest for living.
"Shane never had a negative or a harsh word about any aspect of his life," she wrote in her letter to the court. "He was extremely committed to his extra-curricular activities of sports and he could lead his team just by his sheer enthusiasm alone."
Other people also remarked that Smith’s infectious smile set him apart.
Smith’s boss, landscaping company owner Frank Serpe, said the teen "could brighten the darkest room with his smile and ambitious personality." In his letter to the court, Serpe quoted one of his customers recalling Smith as the worker "with the cherub smile."
In telephone interviews, Smith’s relatives said he moved to Patterson, N.Y., after he graduated from Hamilton High about two years ago. He lived with his grandparents and his 26-year-old brother, Ryan. Both brothers worked for Serpe and were planning to soon buy a house together. Shane Smith hoped to eventually become a police officer or detective.
"He turned out to be a wonderful, wonderful boy," the teen’s grandmother, Marilyn Smith, said in a telephone interview. "He was so happy. He had the biggest smile."
She said Shane and Ryan had come home from work to a family dinner and a birthday party for their 8-year-old brother, Zach. She said her husband, Larry, then began preparing a trailer for their upcoming vacation. Shane asked if he could be of any help, but Larry suggested that he instead go for an evening ride on his motorcycle.
"He left for his ride and he never came home. My husband blames himself to this day," Marilyn Smith said. "That was the moment our lives were shattered forever."
After Shane’s death, his father and many other relatives and family friends traveled from Anza to New York state for the services.
Upon his return, Larry Smith subsequently rented a truck and he and his wife moved to New York to be closer to his parents and other family members. He has joined a bereavement group there, and is pressing for tougher sentences for drunken drivers.
Larry Smith said he has met with one state legislator, and plans to lobby others, for sentences such as those in many other states that allow prosecutors to charge repeat drunken driving offenders with second-degree murder.
"There are a lot of angry, hurt feelings here," he said in an interview. "This (death) was totally preventable."
Smith also speaks at local high school events to raise awareness of the dangers of drunken driving and to build grassroots support for tougher sentences.
"I realize it’s not going to happen overnight," said Smith, who has worked with a Poughkeepsie-based nonprofit group to establish the Shane Smith Scholarship Fund for selected Hamilton High School graduates.
The Community Foundation of Dutchess County is also collecting funds donated on behalf of drug and alcohol awareness programs at the Pawling Central School District.
Kimberly Smith of Anza noted all the lives that her son touched before his death. He did so at school, on sports teams, in his volunteer activities and in his new community, she said. Several letters to court officials cited those efforts.
"Shane was one of these young men that I am proud to have been associated with," Brian Carter wrote of the teen’s involvement at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times in Mountain Center.
"Shane’s tragic death is a loss to his family, friends and camp," the nonprofit’s associate executive director continued. "But Shane’s death will also be a loss as a role model and inspiration to other young people struggling to discern correct decisions as they mature."
Kimberly Smith said her son touched many people that way.
"He was just a ray of sunshine," she said in a telephone interview. "Everywhere he went he was loved and adored by everyone."
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