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Drunk driving victim calls for change

January 09, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Gary Swartz, 61, of Hagerstown, lost half his right leg after he was struck by a drunken driver in August 2003. After a Thursday hearing in Washington County Circuit Court, he criticized the system that allowed for a plea bargain and a maximum sentence of one year in jail for the driver.

"I just don't feel that the standards themselves and the limits on sentences are stiff enough to sink into the minds of people that have that problem" with alcohol, Swartz said.

"The law needs to be revitalized. ... I nearly lost my life," Swartz said.

Michael Edward Sease Jr., 24, of Hagerstown, was charged with several traffic violations in the Aug. 2, 2003, accident that eventually led to the amputation of Swartz's leg at knee level.

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Sease also had been charged with one count of marijuana possession and one count of drug paraphernalia possession.

Sease pleaded guilty Thursday to driving under the influence and marijuana possession. The Washington County State's Attorney's Office dropped the remaining charges.

Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley on Thursday sentenced Sease to one year in jail on the driving under the influence charge and suspended a one-year sentence on the marijuana charge. He ordered Sease to spend three years on probation upon his release.

Assistant Washington County State's Attorney Steven C. Kessell said in court that just before 7 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2003, Washington County Sheriff's Department Deputy Tracey Peyton was called to 12106 Heather Drive in Hagerstown where a car had struck a pedestrian.

Sease told Peyton he had looked away from the road for a moment, looked up, and "Mr. Swartz appeared out of nowhere," Kessell said.

Kessell said Peyton smelled alcohol on Sease's breath. An initial breath test revealed Sease had a .16 blood alcohol content.

Swartz was airlifted by helicopter to a Baltimore hospital. He said after the hearing that he underwent five major surgeries.

Swartz told Beachley that "even with a prosthesis, there's a good chance I may not be able to walk again."

Swartz criticized the plea bargain process during the hearing. He said he was not notified that the state had reached an agreement with Sease until Wednesday afternoon.

"I really feel it was a slap in the face the way the State's Attorney's Office handled the case," Swartz said.

Sease made a tearful apology. Turning to Swartz as he stood at the defense table, Sease said "there's no excuse for what I did. ... Every time I drive or walk by that area, it hits me all over again."

After the hearing, Kessell said his office will look into how the case was handled. But he said Sease entered pleas to the only two charges on which he could have been jailed.

"We, as an office, try to communicate with the victims. There are those cases when we perhaps can do a better job," Kessell said.

Kessell said Sease could not have been charged with assault-related charges that could have carried longer sentences because prosecutors would have had to prove that there was intent to injure.

Swartz, who worked with substance abusers before the accident, said Thursday he eventually hopes to continue that work by speaking to drunken driving offenders. He said he also hopes to lobby for change in state laws.

"There's a lot of work to be done in the judicial system," he said.

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