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No escape

They were best friends forever. Now one is dead, the other wracked with guilt. A court will decide how to mete out justice, but for two families, the suffering will never end.

By John Barry
Published April 8, 2007


Prosecuter Rohom Khonsari puts his head down during a break in testimony while Jessica Rasdall does the same.
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[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
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[Family photo]
Before the unthinkable: Laura Gorman, left, and Jessica Rasdall.

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  • Video
    Jessica Rasdall talks to students about the accident that killed her friend, Laura Gorman.

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[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Books on the prosecutor’s table detail the life of Laura Gorman. But any book about Laura also has to include Jessica, her inseparable pal.

photo
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Books on the prosecutor’s table detail the life of Laura Gorman. But any book about Laura also has to include Jessica, her inseparable pal.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK
What is justice?

Soon a judge will decide Jessica Rasdall’s punishment for the DUI manslaughter death of Laura Gorman. Do you think Jessica should serve the 10 to 15 years mandated by state law? Or should she be sentenced to less severe punishment as a youthful offender?

To respond online, scroll to the bottom of this story to post your comments.

To respond by mail, write to John Barry, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

The two blue books are each 3 inches thick. The first chapter in one is titled: "The Day I Killed My Best Friend." Each one rests on a courtroom table with a family seated in the row behind it. Each one is a biography of a beautiful girl. Each is crammed with awards, journals, report cards, sports triumphs, scholarships, photos taken when the girls were, as one of them said, "sickeningly happy."

The issue before the court is whether both books should end with a burial. One beautiful girl already is buried at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Clearwater. Should the other beautiful girl, as her lawyer phrases it, be buried under the jail?

The search for an answer will involve the surviving girl, all four parents and many others from the netherworld of drunken driving victims and perpetrators. Two parents will beg for mercy. Two parents will demand no mercy. A boy will tell how he once took a life while drunk and got a second chance. A sobbing college girl will give testimony that could help condemn her "sweet and beautiful" friend to prison.

A question will dangle in the air, one for every parent dreading a phone call from the police at 3 a.m. and every girl and boy testing the unearned, woozy freedom of adulthood: "What is justice?"

A prosecutor will walk away ashen and exhausted. "I hate this case in every way," he will blurt out. "I hate everything about it."

The prosecutor

Rohom Khonsari hates all drunken driving manslaughter cases. He has four more cluttering his desk in manila folders. He has one case that may be worse than death: a woman left in a vegetative state. All the drivers are 24 or younger. Most have never been in trouble before and are full of remorse. Each faces a mandatory prison sentence of 10 to 15 years. Khonsari follows the state guidelines but gets no satisfaction from these cases.

This one happened in St. Petersburg at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday in February 2006. Two 18-year-old girls - friends since kindergarten - were headed home from Club Skye in Ybor City. Both had been drinking. Their Honda Civic veered off I-275, flipped over and smashed into a tree. Passenger Laura Gorman, Eckerd College freshman, was killed. Driver Jessica Rasdall, University of South Florida freshman, survived.

Before the court hearing, prosecutor Khonsari laid the girls' thick biographies side by side. Jessica's was full of photos of the two girls together, going back to the fifth grade. They formed a joyful visual time line. Each one showed the girls growing a little taller, a little prettier, with and without braces, always hugging each other tightly.

Khonsari flipped past them, to the last pages of Laura's biography, to the horrible images of Laura's body at the accident scene.

They were friends.

"So what?" he says.

They both drank.

"So what?"

Facing the judge in court, Khonsari says, "Only one girl made the decision to put the key in the ignition."

Laura's dead. Nothing mitigates that.

The driver

Jessica Rasdall has been confessing to killing her best friend ever since she lay on a hospital gurney, severed ear stitched back in place. She has told more than 2,000 students in speeches at schools how she killed Laura. She has opened a scholarship fund in Laura's name. She has revived a Students Against Drunk Driving chapter at her alma mater, St. Petersburg Catholic High. Her psychiatrist says it's the worst case of survivor guilt she has ever seen. By confessing to everyone, Jessica has left her lawyer no way to defend her. She has already convicted herself.

Hundreds of times she has described how she and Laura got bored in Laura's dorm room on a Friday night. They drove to Club Skye, where the bouncer ushered them to the front of the line. At the bar they ordered vodka and Red Bull. The bouncer joined them, she says, supplying free refills plus Washington apple shots. Jessica says he didn't ask for IDs, he asked for their phone numbers.

About four hours later, the Honda ran off the road on the way back to Eckerd. Jessica was going the speed limit. She had a blood alcohol level of 0.128, above the 0.080 limit at which a driver is presumed impaired, according to Florida law.

Rasdall can't remember much. All she remembers is being cut out of the car, waking up on a gurney, hearing a police officer talk about Laura's death, then crying out how sorry she was. Each time she confesses in auditoriums full of very quiet high school and college students, she says she's sorry. Her last words are always "I wish it had been me instead."

At a University of South Florida appearance two nights before her court hearing, Jessica shared the podium with a mother whose child had been killed by a drunken driver. The mother said she had wanted an apology from the driver. It meant everything when she finally got it.

At her hearing, Jessica had planned to recite for the judge a point-by-point account of her redemptive life since the accident. But she couldn't do it. She could only turn to the Gormans behind her and declare, "I'm sorry for all the pain I've caused. I killed my friend."

The parents

The parents don't speak to each other. The morning of the accident, Jessica's father had picked up a Catholic priest and driven straight to the Gorman home. He had met Laura's stricken dad in the driveway. "We shared a moment as fathers," Rasdall says. It was the last time. The Gormans had a message passed to the Rasdalls that they weren't welcome at the funeral. It took place on Jessica's 19th birthday.

Before the accident, the Gormans had written a letter of recommendation for the Rasdalls when they adopted Jessica's sister, Catalina. Jessica had a key to the Gorman house when she babysat their younger daughter, Diana. Jessica returned the key in the mail, along with a letter of regret.

In court, the Rasdalls try to catch the Gormans' eyes. Don and Lourdes Rasdall each turn from the witness podium, telling the Gormans how they share their loss, that Laura's death means a life sentence for them, too. Don Rasdall breaks down. "She was our part-time daughter," he says, crying. "Why did they go out that night? Why did Jessica have to drive? I can't change that. I can only say one more time, I'm so sorry."

Rod and Helen Gorman reject apologies and testimonials. The issue is not forgiveness. "We want the judge to follow the law. We want justice," Helen Gorman says.

They won't call Jessica by her name. "The defendant" committed a criminal act that took away everything. "Laura was our future," Mrs. Gorman says. "We spent our life making and shaping her. In five seconds, it was all gone." Rod Gorman can't sleep. He lives in dread. "What next?" he asks. Their 12-year-old daughter, Diana, wakes up every day to a household steeped in grief. "Her childhood was taken away." Diana's grandmother is "so medicated she can't function." Eyes reddened, Mrs. Gorman says, "That's our world."

She tells the judge: "The suffering is paralyzing. There is no escape, nowhere to go. I relive every minute of my daughter's death. Imagine using college money for a funeral."

The boy who killed

John Templeton Jr. comes to court to tell how he killed 18-year-old Julie Buckner. It was five years ago, when he was 19. He was so drunk from partying at Club Hedo in Ybor that he drove the wrong way on I-275 and plowed into Julie's car. He begged forgiveness from Julie's family. It split the parents: Julie's father favored leniency; her mother wanted prison for Templeton.

He never went to prison. He served 10 months in jail. The judge, who had to adjourn court to collect himself, invoked the one escape clause in the sentencing guidelines: He declared Templeton a first-time "youthful offender," eligible for leniency. He imposed a sentence that was mostly probation. Templeton is still on probation and crusades against drunken driving as part of his community service.

He works with Bruce Murakami, the founder of Safe Teen Driver in St. Petersburg. Murakami's wife and daughter were killed by a teenage drag racer in 1998. He, too, asked a judge to show mercy for the driver. His story has been made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie, Crossroads: A Story of Forgiveness, that will be shown April 22 on CBS.

Templeton tells the judge that Jessica can save other teenagers from DUI arrests and deaths by getting the break he got and joining Murakami's crusade.

"I hope Jessica has the opportunity I had."

The friend

Charlotte Lambert is already crying when she testifies, "Jessica is an amazing friend." She, Jessica and Laura all worked as servers at the Hooters on Tyrone Boulevard in St. Petersburg. "We're still friends," she says, sobbing.

Jessica once asked her to go for a drink after work. Charlotte had exams the next day. She said no. "I'm not a partier," she tells the judge. They finally agreed to "just one drink."

Off they went to the Abbey Road bar on 58th Street N in St. Petersburg. They weren't carded. The bartender set up a row of tequila shots. Everything afterward was a blur. "I don't even remember leaving the bar."

All Charlotte remembers is being in the car. Jessica was driving. She had vomited on herself as she drove. "I asked her repeatedly to pull over."

They ended up in a parking lot. Charlotte called her boyfriend, who picked them up. Jessica spent the night with her. Charlotte missed her exams.

She finished her testimony by telling the judge, "We were best friends from the minute we met."

The judge

Judge Timothy Peters wishes he had a hardened criminal in front of him. But it's usually like this, he says, "a defendant with little, if any, criminal history" and tons of remorse. His face is creased with tension. "Also, typically, a victim's family devastated, as far as I can see, beyond repair.

"I cannot make anyone whole, I cannot make anyone feel better, I cannot make it go away."

Jessica's lawyer, Tim Hessinger, has asked Peters to exercise the escape clause that allows a judge to give leniency to a young first offender if there are mitigating circumstances. "They were 18," he says. "They thought they were invincible. Many of us in this courtroom could have found ourselves in the same situation at an early age."

Both sets of parents are frozen in place. Judge Peters tells them his heart has been broken by the testimony. He's impressed by Jessica's speeches and admissions of guilt.

What in all that justifies leniency, he asks rhetorically.

"Nothing in all that."

Peters turns to the two lawyers. "I'm not dickering," the judge says flatly. "What else have you got?"

The prosecutor has his head in his hands. The defense lawyer looks blankly, speechlessly, at the judge. "I don't have anything more to say."

A new hearing is set for May 1. Prison looks inevitable.

The prosecutor sounds anything but victorious.

"There is not one scenario I can imagine," Rohom Khonsari says as he leaves court, "in which justice will be served."

John Barry sustained permanent injuries in a motorcycle accident in 1974 when he was 25. Barry, who had been drinking, was riding solo when he crashed into a tree. He was not charged with DUI. He can be reached at 727 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

 

WHAT do YOU THINK?

What is justice?

Soon a judge will decide Jessica Rasdall's punishment for the DUI manslaughter death of Laura Gorman. Do you think Jessica should serve the 10 to 15 years mandated by state law? Or should she be sentenced to less severe punishment as a youthful offender?

Comment on this article below, or write John Barry by mail at St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

 

 

[Last modified April 7, 2007, 16:20:46]


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