When Eric Smallridge attempted to drive home from a bar one night, he was sure that he was fine to get behind the wheel. When his poor judgement cost two young women their lives, though, one of their mothers eventually took action to help heal from his actions in a way that a prison sentence never could.
Smallridge’s story was similar to so many other drunk-driving accidents that have occurred year after year.
The young man had been drinking at a bar with his friends, but decided—against his better judgement—to drive himself home at the end of the night.
“Are you sure you can drive?” a friend had asked. Smallridge said he was fine.
Although he’d known friends who had been convicted for DUIs, he insisted that he was fine to get behind the wheel. The worst that could happen, he assumed, was that he’d get in a bit of trouble, a slap on the wrist, like the other friends he’d known who had gotten caught. It didn’t seem like he was in a condition to end anyone’s life.
Instead, though, he ended two.
Lisa Dickson and Megan Napier, both 20 years old, had been on their way home from babysitting when Smallridge hit them, killing them instantly. He walked away perfectly fine.
Their devastated parents were more than fine, at first, with the harsh sentence he was given: 22 years, 11 per girl he killed. For Megan’s mom, Renee, it felt like justice, even if watching them lock Smallridge up didn’t quite heal her heart like she hoped it would.
Smallridge wrote to Napier and Dickson’s families to apologize for what he’d done, full of remorse. Renee wrote back to him and stated that she would forgive him—even if inside, she wasn’t quite ready yet.
While waiting for his sentence to commence, though, the grieving mom got to know Smallridge’s family. It humanized him, this man that had taken away her child. It was then that she realized the best way to heal, and find the capacity to properly forgive.
“I could hate him forever and the world would tell me I have a right to do that,” Napier explained.
She wanted something better, though. “It’s not going to do me any good, and it’s not going to do him any good. I would grow old and bitter and angry and hateful … in my opinion, forgiveness is the only way to heal.”
In an unexpected twist, Napier’s next letter was to the courts. She requested for a sentence reduction; she wanted Smallridge to get out early, and by a large margin. Her request cut his sentence in half, giving him just 11 years’ time locked up.
When he was released more than a decade later, Smallridge took the opportunity to give back, helping Napier keep others from doing exactly what he did. He wanted to get the message across to people that they shouldn’t think about drunk driving as something small and inconsequential, rather than something that could quickly end a life. He and Napier traveled to schools together, talking about what happened when he got behind the wheel that night so many years ago, and how he could have prevented a tragedy.
Smallridge is as passionate as Napier is about what they do.
“I’m going to go wherever we need to go to spread this message,” he explained. “Because I don’t believe it’s about us anymore.”
Their talks can’t bring Lisa or Megan back, but they’ve helped immensely with the healing that Napier needed, and the power of forgiveness has given Smallridge a purpose now that he’s out in the public again.
“There’s going to be healing,” Napier insists. “And there’s going to be good things from here on out.”
Hopefully, they’ll stop at least one person from getting behind the wheel, and that life that they save will be exactly what they’ve hoped to accomplish.
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Photo Credit: YouTube Screenshot | Jud Odom.
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