Article as it appears in Newstimes.
It was a perfect fall day, a Sunday when the sky was true blue and the air carried a lingering warmth.
Susan and Kevin Klein walked Clara and Lucy, their shiba inus. Their twin sons, Aaron and Max, were off at college, one to Manhattanville, the other a semester abroad in Australia. After 25 years of marriage, they were defining a new life as empty nesters. So much was ahead.
In the evening, they took the back roads from their longtime Brookfield home to an Infinity Hall concert in Norfolk; Kevin wanted to hear Spyro Gyra. The jazz group from Buffalo, as was Kevin, had been at the Ridgefield Playhouse days earlier, but Susan, a classical pianist, was performing that particular night so they waited for the weekend.
The Spyro Gyra concert was terrific. On the way home, they took Interstate 84. It was quicker. If only they hadn’t, if only they had left 5 minutes sooner or 5 minutes later or gone 5 mph faster or 5 mph slower, or any random number of variables one asks over and over again, it all would be different.
Kevin would still be alive — he had been so alive — and Susan would not know in such a wrenching personal way the dangers of a stoned driver, a stranger behind the wheel on the other side of the highway that night of Oct. 25, 2015.
Susan was unexpectedly happy with the concert; she was on her smartphone posting on Facebook as Kevin drove his blue Porsche, his “baby,” west that autumn night, toward home — between exits 17 and 16 in Middlebury; the distance shortening. Not many cars were on the highway this star-tossed night.
Susan looked down at her phone. She didn’t see the Ford Escape careening across the grassy center median. Crash. She looked up. She looked over at her husband. Blood poured down Kevin’s right forehead and cheek. He had turned to look at her. Uncomprehending, she held his hand.
White lights. Life can change in an instant — and death enters in that crack.
‘Will never, ever stop thinking of Kevin’
Three-and-a-half years later, Susan tries in vain to stop tears that pool at the memories from the night her husband’s life ended and hers changed unalterably because of a reckless teenager.
Erica Weinman, the 18-year-old driver from Aberdeen, N.J., heading east on I-84 while they were going west, was stoned, Susan said. Erica and her stepbrother had been partying all weekend; she was driving him back from their New Jersey home to his campus in Hamden.
She lost control of the car. At first, she said it had hit the rumble strip. Yeah, right, that caused it to go across the median and spin into the westbound lane? Both escaped unharmed, and walked over to the crumpled Porsche.
Susan learned only later, looking at her iPhone covered with stains of her husband’s blood, that an unknown call had been made from the phone. The teenage driver had found Susan’s phone and used it. She used the phone belonging to the wife of the man she had just killed — to call her mother.
Erica was charged by State Police with second-degree manslaughter, failure to drive in the proper lane on a highway and operating a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
I don’t know whether I could have faced that New Jersey teenager in court. Writing this, I am angry. But Susan had the courage, and the support of 50 or so friends, who showed up for every court appearance in the case that dragged on for more than three years.
And she had researched the consequences of legalizing marijuana.
“I will never, ever stop thinking of Kevin. And of the possibly 30-35 years we had left together that are now lost,” Susan told the judge when Erica was sentenced Jan. 11 this year. “And I will continue to cry over his loss because one person, under the influence of marijuana, decided to take the wheel that night regardless of any consequences.”
The cost to society
Time for true confessions. Yes, I have smoked marijuana in my younger years, a few times. Show me a kid from the ’60s who hasn’t, or at least hasn’t inhaled secondhand smoke at a concert. It made me giggly and craving potato chips (which I do always anyway). Fun, like a just-right vodka and tonic on a summer’s twilight evening. Nothing more.
And I’ve thought that pot is not so bad, made a demon by silly 1930s-style movies. Hippies made it cool, actually the beat poets before them. But the societal consequences were cruel — the illegalization of pot had an inordinate effect on urban centers, meaning on minorities.
Connecticut is considering legalizing recreational marijuana. About five years ago medical marijuana was passed, and eventually possession of small amounts of marijuana was no longer criminal for first-time offenders. In this legislative session in Hartford, three bills related to making recreational marijuana legal have passed through committees.
Though the issue has come up before, this year it has progressed further thanks, in part, to Massachusetts legalizing it.
The Hearst Connecticut Media Editorial Board hasn’t developed a position on whether marijuana should be legal in our state. We wanted more information and invited state Sen. Tony Hwang from Fairfield to meet with us and explain his opposition.
“It is too simplistic to say yes or no, there are so many complexities,” Hwang told us last week. “We need to take pause and think about it long and hard.”
He supports the social justice component — taking a second look at criminal arrests for possession “as a pathway for people to reclaim their lives.” I get that, and agree.
But if the march to legalization is to raise revenue, and not lose sales to Massachusetts, then that’s the wrong reason. While we’re fighting the opioid epidemic and telling youth they shouldn’t vape for health reasons, the message is contradictory to say it’s OK, though, to smoke or ingest marijuana.
Hwang is rightly concerned about the societal costs — Colorado, which legalized pot five years ago, has seen a “dramatic increase in traffic accidents” by impaired drivers. The problem is, though, that a reliable test doesn’t exist yet for police to test for the drug, as they do for alcohol.
In Colorado, every $1 in revenue has cost the state $4.50 because of accidents, health issues and such, Hwang said, citing a November report by the Centennial Institute at the Colorado Christian University.
‘It shouldn’t have happened’
Susan Klein is OK with medical marijuana because the mind-altering THC component can be removed or reduced. People with debilitating medical conditions can be helped.
But from her personal experience, she fears the consequences of impaired drivers on the roads if marijuana is legal in Connecticut.
It haunted her for the 3.5 years, she told the judge at Erica’s sentencing, “trying so very hard to not think of her possibly getting into the car impaired again, possibly destroying yet another family.”
Kevin, with the mischievous blue eyes, was “one of those guys everyone liked,” Susan told me. His sense of humor was silly, though his career in marketing at Pitney Bowes was serious. One morning at the gym as she put on her sneakers, she discovered hot dog rolls; Kevin had slipped them in. When he would walk past her knitting on the couch, he would scrunch the top of her hair. Some days, she can still feel his tickle.
“Kevin was a loving, moral, decent man who lived his life with respect for anyone he encountered,” Susan told the packed courtroom at Erica’s sentencing. “He was a man who valued family above all else.”
The teen who killed him accepted a plea agreement. She agreed that she was guilty of vehicular manslaughter; the judge sentenced her to five years in prison, with the possibility to get out in three, followed by two years of probation. She showed no remorse to Susan and is serving time in the state’s prison for women in Niantic.
“It shouldn’t have happened, it shouldn’t have happened,” Susan said of the accident. “Even now, I don’t believe it.
“You wait until you lose somebody. Is the tax money worth it?”
Susan held Kevin’s hand for the last time Oct. 25, 2015, holding tight until the paramedics said she had to let go.
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