Grieving mother hopes motion for mercy will prevail

Susan Barich, whose son died in a drunk driving accident, is proposing a more lenient alternative to prison for the woman who was behind the wheel.

 

Steve Chawkins

 

Los Angeles Times

January 22, 2007

When she learned last summer that her 25-year-old son had been killed at the hands of a drunk driver, Susan Barich's reaction was immediate.

"I knew it was an accident," she said. "There was no room for rancor."

Barich, 56, a Monterey County businesswoman, has extended extraordinary compassion toward the 22-year-old woman who was drunk at the wheel the night her son, Alex Baer, hopped a ride with her.

Barich has written and made public a letter to court officials urging probation for Jessica Binkerd, whom she has never met. Binkerd was a casual work acquaintance of her son.

"I feel angry and helpless when I think that Jessica Binkerd, who must shoulder for the rest of her life the responsibility for Alex's death, may suffer further at the hands of our justice system," Barich wrote. "As a parent and as a human being, my heart breaks for Jessica."

Binkerd, a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara, has pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter and drunk driving and is to be sentenced Friday in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, where she faces a prison term of up to seven years and eight months. Her blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit on the night of the crash.

Barich plans to tell the judge that, instead of being incarcerated, Binkerd should be ordered to campaign against drunk driving.

Her proposal has its critics, including some of her late son's close friends, who believe that only a stiff sentence will serve to deter Binkerd and other drunk drivers.

"All of Alex's friends are watching this case," said Caleb Day, 25. "The whole community is watching. If people see her getting away with a little slap on the wrist, it won't keep them from continuing to drive home wasted. And it will lessen the significance of Alex's life."

Baer was a psychology student at UC Santa Barbara. He and Binkerd had worked with autistic children at the Devereux Center, a private institution in Goleta. On Aug. 6, after they left a co-worker's party, Binkerd veered into a lane of oncoming traffic and smashed into a car driven by Sara Maynez, 19.

Maynez was unhurt, though her dog was killed. Binkerd suffered broken ankles and other injuries. Baer died in the wreckage.

Binkerd has contended that she swerved because the driver in front of her suddenly braked. For the grieving mother, though, the mechanics of the crash don't make much difference.

"My feeling was the same when I thought she was so drunk that she has passed out and crossed over the line," Barich said in an interview. "My true feeling is compassion for anyone who accidentally kills a friend. Whether it's my child or not doesn't matter."

In her Nov. 30 letter, Barich conveys the impression of a woman immersed in pain. "Some days I stand in my closet and scream," she wrote. "I fear the police will come." To honor her son's sense of humor, she added, she sometimes wears "the silly, sparkly party shirt I gave him for Christmas." Photos of Baer form a ceaseless loop on her computer screen.

The digital memorial is only the most recent reminder of death in a family that has been devastated before by drunk driving. When Barich was 16, she was a passenger in a car that careened off a country road in Sonoma County. The driver was her 24-year-old cousin, who was drunk. He was killed that day, along with Barich's 19-year-old sister. Barich broke her back.

And Barich's son was no stranger to drunk driving, she said. In four years, Baer had racked up two DUI convictions. When he died, he had just completed the community service portion of his most recent sentence — 40 days of picking up trash along the roadside.

Perhaps it was the family saga, Barich said, that colored her perception of the crash that killed her son.

The next day, she and a clutch of somber family members, including her two older children, were at the Santa Barbara County coroner's office, passing around a newspaper account of the incident.

"It sounded judgmental to me," Barich said. "I pointed to everyone in the room and said, 'There but for fortune go you, and you, and you, and you, and me.' "

A Santa Cruz resident, she leads an economic development effort for the nearby town of Marina, recruiting high-tech businesses for the former Ft. Ord Army base. On a website she created to encourage dialogue about her son's death, she delivers quotes from the likes of Carl Jung and Mother Teresa, and actively engages the friends of Baer, who respectfully post their dissenting points of view.

"Are we willing to cause more problems from this event?" she asked in a recent message on atthehearth.wordpress.com, "Or are we compelled to begin to create solutions? I, for one, want Alex's legacy to be lives saved — not one more young woman in prison."

Barich has traded e-mails and phone calls with Binkerd, who declined to be interviewed for this article.

In an e-mail posted on the website, Binkerd wrote: "I am in no way excusing my behavior. I made a terrible call in judgment … and I killed someone. On my worst days, I wish to God that my mistake had taken me instead."

Binkerd had hoped to become a psychologist specializing in autism. To Barich, she seems genuinely remorseful, eager to speak to groups and participate in programs to reduce drunk driving.

"Having her spend five or seven years working the circuit will save lives," said Barich, who added that Baer's father, stepfather and other close relatives support her position.

Barich also has exchanged heartfelt e-mails with Binkerd's mother, a physician in Colorado. She said the two mothers hoped to explore "ways that we can send a message of love and compassion for the younger people together — not just for Jessica's sentencing, but beyond."

Pleas for mercy from victims' families are rare but not unprecedented.

Winifred Potenza, a Santa Rosa, Calif., artist, paid weekly prison visits to the man who killed her son in a drunk driving accident and helped him secure a parole. From time to time, she has dinner with him, his wife and their children.

"I'm so grateful," she said. "All I have to do is grieve the loss of my son, and not hate the person who did this. It's a remarkable gift."

Matthias Mendezona, a victim services specialist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he had seen one or two such cases in seven years. The group, which customarily advocates stiffer penalties and tougher enforcement, says it does not get in the way of these softer approaches.

"We can't rebuke victims for invoking their rights," Mendezona said. "But when we see that, we say it's not going to discourage others from going out there and endangering human life."

Binkerd has no prior criminal convictions, said her attorney, Steve Balash, of Santa Barbara.

But whether the weight of the death she caused will be sufficient punishment is an open question to Baer's friends.

Paige Reid, an event planner for a Santa Barbara hotel, was Baer's girlfriend in his final seven months.

"I don't speak out of hate or vengeance," she said, "but for at least a year, she should have no access to friends, to family, to holidays, to all the little things we take for granted — because we don't get that chance anymore with Alex."

Like others, Reid said she was disturbed by photos that Binkerd had posted after the crash on her MySpace website. They showed Binkerd in Santa Barbara bars and clubs with a group of friends, she said.

"It raises some worrisome questions," she said.

Binkerd's attorney says his client has stopped drinking, no longer drives, is in an outpatient treatment program, and is subject to random drug and alcohol testing.

Barich said Binkerd told her she had not been drunk since the accident, although she did have some drinks with friends.

In her e-mail, posted Friday, Binkerd says she no longer drinks at all but accompanies drinking friends to serve as "the sober voice of reason."

"I now see, and count, and remember how many drinks my driving friends have had," she wrote. "I am there to suggest a cab and act as extra wallet to chip in on fare. I am trying to amend my errors by doing what I can to prevent other people from making them."

The case's prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Kimberly Smith, declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to do so before the sentencing.

Barich expressed compassion for the prosecutor as well.

"She has a huge burden," Barich said. "Drunk driving is a serious problem in Santa Barbara and they've thrown it on her shoulders to fix…. This is an issue the entire community needs to face instead of treating it like a dirty little secret."