~In Memoriam of Wendy and Kimberly Sands~.............

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Empty chairs face DUI victims

Local judges fail to utilize victim impact classes sponsored by MADD at the James A. Woody Community Center in Apple Valley


APPLE VALLEY -- One by one, a story brought the faces in the photographs to life.

Every one of those stories ended the same.

"All of these people have been injured or killed by a drunk driver," Sherry Hampton-Sands said.

The victim impact class run by Hampton-Sands brings those convicted of driving under the influence face to face with people who have lost a loved one to a drunken driver. Sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, the victim impact class at the James A. Woody Community Center is the only one of its kind in the Victor Valley.

It is held once a month. Drunk driving offenders are referred here by the court as part of their probation for conviction. She said one MADD-sponsored study has shown the classes to be 86 percent effective in reducing the number of repeat offenders.

Yet the class here is poorly attended. While similar classes in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange County and elsewhere are often packed with 100 people or more, sometimes no one at all shows up at the James A. Woody Community Center.

"I honestly don't know why," Hampton-Sands said. "There are some judges that just refuse to (refer them to the class)."

The classes were first formed in the late 1980s, designed to primarily target those arrested for the first time, said Wendy Hamilton, national president of MADD.

"We think there is a great deal of effectiveness in them," Hamilton said. "By and large these people (who attend) say they never realized the impact their choice could have made had they been in a crash and they will make better choices down the road."

Victorville Municipal Court Judge John Tomberlin declined to comment when asked why more people convicted of DUI's here in the High Desert are not sent to the victim impact class.

"The question runs directly afoul of the canon of ethics that all judges have to abide by," Tomberlin said. "I think I have a specific canon of ethics that I am obligated not to make comment on that type of case that comes before me."

Ron Miller, program manager for MADD's California State Office, said although the program is used effectively throughout the state each judge has discretion in sentencing.

"Even within San Bernardino County there are different levels of participation based upon the judge," Miller said. "It is unfortunate that more offenders aren't being ordered to go to the victim impact panels in Victorville."

Michael Risley, assistant district attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office in Victorville, said the local DA's Office is an advocate of the victim impact classes.

"We respect individual judicial decision, but we do think it is a good program and would be appropriate for all first-time offenders," Risley said. "We as an office wholly support this program."

The class includes face-to-face encounters with the carnage and loss inflicted upon innocent people by drunken drivers. During her last class on March 29, Hampton-Sands pulled the pictures and presented them each to the sole person in attendance, a soldier from Fort Irwin who was arrested for his DUI in Colorado.

The photos flash by, one, then another. A woman and her unborn baby killed; a pair of motorcycle riders, one decapitated and the other impaled on a tree; a mother headed home to see her children on Christmas crushed to death.

The victims were all from San Bernardino County.

They all have a story and Hampton-Sands has memorized every one of them.

She has her own memories to bear. Hampton-Sands lost her 26-year-old daughter, Wendy Sands, and 6-year-old granddaughter, Kimberly Sands, to a drunken driver in June 2000. The classes are taught by victims.

The driver who killed Hampton-Sands' daughter and granddaughter had been twice convicted of DUI in the past. At 96 mph he blew through a stop sign and in an instant changed the world for the many people who knew Wendy and Kimberly Sands.

"When I say I have known the depths of despair I have known agony. I know what I am talking about," Hampton-Sands said.

Risley prosecuted the case.

He said first-time DUI offenders face license suspensions, fines, possible jail time and community service.

"This program is just one more additional way ... maybe listening to these horror stories of these family survivors might have an impact on somebody," he said.

LeRoy Standish may be reached at 951-6277


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