Debbie McLeland (USA)

“I wanted to go to court for justice - not revenge.”

Photography by Johnny Rozsa

On 16th September 2001, eight members of an American student cross-country team were killed when a one-tonne truck driven by fellow student Clint Haskins ploughed into their vehicle. It was the worst loss-of-life traffic accident in the history of the State of Wyoming. Among the dead was 21-year-old Morgan McLeland. Since the tragedy occurred, Morgan’s mother, Debbie McLeland, has reached out to Clint Haskins (currently in prison), and together they have worked to educate young people about the dangers of drinking and driving.

We were told Morgan had died by a policeman who turned up at our door. Somehow I managed to keep strong, standing outside myself as the tragedy unfolded. My husband, on the other hand, collapsed, pounding his fists on the floor, crying ‘no, not my son, not my son.’

During the next 24 hours we learned that all eight student athletes had died that night, but we still didn’t know who had caused the accident. This meant that as well as grieving our loss, we were also facing the possibility that our son might have been responsible. However, it soon transpired that the culprit was Clint Haskins who had drunk so much that night that he had no recollection of what happened.

As the days passed, in the midst of our grief, I thought about Clint and I even asked a friend to call the hospital to leave a message saying I was asking after him. I knew this young man would soon wake up to the terrible knowledge of what he’d done.

They charged Clint on the day of Morgan’s funeral, but I asked the bishop to be sure to make it a day of celebration – not a day to get even. I was already aware that I mustn’t get stuck in revenge. I’m not saintly; I was mad and angry too, but I never hated Clint. Hate is a large burden to carry. And when the person you hate probably doesn’t know or even care, why bother?

From the beginning my reaction was different from that of the other families. At the sentencing hearing, Clint agreed to plead guilty to all eight counts of homicide with a 13-20 year sentence for each count. This meant he could serve his sentence concurrently instead of consecutively. Some families were very upset about this and felt he should be locked away for the rest of his life. But we supported the plea bargain. I wanted to go to court for justice – not revenge.

At the hearing each family read out a victim impact statement and it was here that I first had the idea of putting a challenge to Clint. Across the court I asked him if he would be willing to come with me and address young people about the dangers of drink-driving. When he had an opportunity to speak, he said he would like to.

Finally, three years later, after a lot of hard work, I got to see Clint. I found him to be very subdued and remorseful. We both cried and I hugged him, and then we talked about what we could do together to help people make better decisions about drinking and driving. I believed in his sincerity.

We first spoke to a room of 900 young people at the National Rodeo High School Finals in Gillette, where Clint had been a rodeo cowboy. It was enormously effective. Later we spoke at the University of Wyoming where all eight of the dead, and Clint, had been students. There was some opposition to this event, as some of the families didn’t agree with what we were doing. I still feel bad about that. We’ve all had a lot of pain and I don’t want to add to it. But I also truly believe that our presentations can save lives.

Some people think that forgiveness is being disloyal to your loved one; that the only way to honour and remember them is to keep anger and bitterness in your heart, because negative emotion is so much more intense. But that doesn’t work for me. I need to get out of that place of pain and hurt. Forgiveness allows me to talk about Morgan in a positive and happy way.

Forgiving Clint seems a logical step to me, as this tragic experience is something we both share. Also, he’s a kid, the same age as my son; and it’s important I remember that. Morgan wasn’t perfect, just as Clint isn’t a demon. The roles could have been reversed.