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Springs family foregoes vengeance in daughter's death

Back in March, I wrote about the remarkable tributes at a memorial service for Whitney deMoraes Hendrickson, an 18-year-old college freshman who died in a freak accident in Colorado Springs when another driver smashed into a gas pump and started a fire ("On a dark day, celebrating a good life"). I have known Whitney's parents, David and Clelia Hendrickson, since my college days and watched her and her sister and brother grow up in a rambling, sunny household on the west side of the Springs.

Whitney's death was a savage blow to her family and many, many friends -- which makes the outcome of the criminal case against the woman who caused her death not only unusual but startling. On July 22, Kelli Renae McKay, the driver of a pickup that smashed into another vehicle at a Seven-Eleven, driving it into the pumps while Whitney was trying to fuel her car, pleaded guilty to careless driving and was sentenced to five years' probation.

Before a general howl arises about lenient, weak-kneed judges, let me hasten to add that probation was what Whitney's family wanted. El Paso County Judge Larry Martin was taken aback by the request but decided to honor their wish. "I don't think I'd be as forgiving and understanding," Martin declared, according to this article in the Colorado Springs Gazette. "If it had been up to me, you'd be going to jail."

The family's decision touched off a lot of huffy kibitzing in the community, but bystanders are hardly in a position to pass judgment on a parent's grief over a dead child, especially if they haven't visited that dark place themselves. The Hendricksons' unusual stance, in a society that seems to value payback a lot more than mercy, may turn out to be the better course for all concerned.

If the driver was a chronic drunk and an ongoing menace to society, that might warrant harsher action, certainly. But McKay is a woman already struggling with the weight of her actions, with children of her own and a husband just back from Iraq. Her sentence includes suspension of her driver's license for four years, 300 hours of community service, a mental health evaluation--and maybe a chance to salvage her own family, something that was an important consideration for Whitney's parents.

Sending McKay to prison for years won't bring Whitney back. Keeping her family intact might help other lives that would otherwise be blighted. In this particular case, an investment in mercy, if not forgiveness, could make an unfair world a little bit better. That's something I know that Whitney herself would have wanted.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast