January 21, 2020

Courtroom echoes with painful lessons

Veteran crime reporters are a pretty tough bunch. It’s a job requirement, really, considering they’re exposed to more acts of violence and depravity in a typical year than most people confront in a lifetime.

So when the crime reporter for this newspaper came into my office the other day, looking upset as she slumped in a chair, it was clear that she had just witnessed something out of the ordinary, something that had pierced the emotional armor of her profession and found her most vulnerable spot.

I had seen this expression on her face before. I saw it as she wrote about the slaying of a baby named Aisha Dickson in Bangor a few years back, and again while she reported the rape of a once-carefree little girl whose innocence and trust were stolen forever on a woods trail near the outskirts of town.

As a mother of two children, the reporter found it increasingly difficult to distance herself from tragedies involving the young.

This time it hit her at Bangor District Court, where she sat through the sentencing of Adam Beaulieu, a Hampden teen-ager whose reckless driving last June caused the death of a passenger, 16-year-old Valerie Morin. Sitting among the family and friends of both teens, the reporter listened to Beaulieu’s uncontrolled sobbing as he tried to apologize for what he had done. She shuddered as she watched Beaulieu’s mother turn to the Morins and say through her tears that she will never know the depth of the pain her son had caused them. And she heard the tortured words of the victim’s mother, who said tearfully to Beaulieu, “All you had to do was slow down” — just as her daughter Valerie had begged him to do before the crash.

A torrent of grief, anger and despair had washed through the courtroom that day, sparing no one, not even the seasoned reporter. And as she related to me the wrenching emotions of the scene, it was the parent in her, not the reporter, who struggled to find the words.

Thinking of her own children as teen drivers one day, she said she could feel the intense pain of both mothers as if it were her own. It could be, she knew, just as it could be for any one us parents.

In her story published on Wednesday, she suggested that every high school driver in Maine could have benefited from being in that courtroom to witness firsthand the suffering that a brief spell of youthful recklessness can cause. That was impossible, of course. There was no video camera there, either, to record the terrible sights and sounds of a room exploding with grief.

There was only a single compelling story in the morning paper, tucked in among all the other bad news of the day, to be read in haste and discarded by night.

Yet this is one of those stories that should never be forgotten. It should be required reading, in fact, committed to memory by all those teen-agers eagerly awaiting their first day behind the wheel and all those parents who will nervously be handing them the keys. It’s the kind of story that does what the stupefying weekly parade of accident photos could never do. It touches what the car-wreck films in driver ed can’t hope to touch in a generation grown numb to the graphic violence of popular films. It goes even further than all the dry statistics proving incontestably that cars, in case we still hadn’t caught on, are the leading killers of teen-agers in Maine.

Because after each teen-age fatality, in courtrooms pulsing with unimaginable sorrow for lives ruined and lost, the most important driving lesson a kid could learn is found in a grieving parent’s lament: “All you had to do was slow down.”

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