Things could have gone so differently today for Regina Tausinga. She stood up in front of the judge in a Provo courtroom and pleaded no contest to negligent homicide. She also pleaded guilty to the charge of allowing an unlicensed person (her 15-year-old son) to drive her car.
On August 21, her son was driving himself to school and accidentally ran over and killed my nephew, Cooper Mardesich. Because of my brother and his wife’s compassion, Gina’s son didn’t go to jail. (See the November 3rd post, An example of love and compassion)
And today, Ted and Sharon sat in the front row with Gina until she was called. The judge talked to her about the consequences of pleading no contest and pleading guilty. He asked if she understood that she was waiving her right to a jury trial. She said she did.
The judge seemed confused. He called Ted and Sharon up. Their son had died — had been accidentally killed — and yet the state wasn’t seeking any jail time or restitution from Gina. The judge asked if they were okay with that. They both said yes. Shortly after Cooper died, Ted and Sharon became friends with the Tausingas — and that friendship, love and support have helped everyone to heal. “We don’t seek any kind of restitution,” Ted told him. “That’s really not necessary in our eyes.”
The judge looked stunned. He actually said to them, “Okay. May the good lord bless you.” (Can you imagine a judge on, say, Law and Order uttering those words in court?)
As they sat down, the judge kept talking. “This is very, very unusual,” he said. He wanted to know why everyone wanted to move forward with sentencing right away. (Usually there’s at least a two-day delay before sentencing.) The lawyers said that the families wanted to resolve things so that they could continue their healing.
The room was packed. Besides the usual suspects waiting for their charges to be read, or for their sentences to be pronounced (mostly for drug-related charges), we took up a lot of space. Ted and Sharon, my mom and dad, my other brother and his wife, Ted and Sharon’s friends, plus Gina, her husband, her mother, her father, and her sisters and friends. It was suddenly really quiet.
The judge didn’t seem to want to just let it go. He said that he was faced with pronouncing a sentence in the case, but he felt isolated, unaware of the facts and circumstances of the case. “I don’t even know his name,” the judge said.
“His name is Cooper Mardesich, judge,” one of the attorneys said.
“I know no facts, because there never has been an evidenciary hearing,” the judge continued. “I know nothing. I don’t even know his age. I don’t even know how to spell his last name.” The case was called The State of Utah v. Regina Tausinga, so this was the first mention of Cooper in the courtroom.
The judge commented on how unusual it was for Cooper’s parents to not be seeking retribution. “In most cases, they would be seeking a public hanging,” the judge said.
He seemed reluctant, but finally agreed with the resolution: 185 hours of community service, and court probation for a year, and some as-yet-undetermined fines.
Gina got a chance to speak. Through her tears, she said that she keeps two pictures of Cooper in her home to remind her and her son to make better decisions, as well as to honor Cooper’s life. “Ted and Sharon gave us a gift we can never repay,” she said. “They forgave my son, and I want to try to be worthy of that gift.”
“We’ll be sorry forever.”
The judge said the outcome was an incredible tribute to Cooper. “It is an amazing story of forgiveness.”
I thought of the others in that courtroom, from the dozen or so (mostly men) sitting in front, shackled, to the others sitting on the church-like pews with us. How many people in that courtroom would receive the same grace?
The justice system is about making people accountable for their actions. There are laws, and penalties associated with breaking those laws. There was no minimum penalty, but the maximum in Gina’s case was one year in jail. Oddly, the day after Cooper died, a woman in Roosevelt, Utah, was sentenced to a year in jail for letting a 14-year old girl without a license drive her SUV (some stories say the girl was her daughter, others say she was a niece). The girl accidentally backed up over a 22-month old and killed her. In that case, the girl was charged with manslaughter in Juvenile Court and sentenced to a work camp.
Forgiving doesn’t make the pain go away. I’m sure Ted and Sharon still ache. We all do. But I suspect that by forgiving, they are living in a lighter, happier state. It would be so awful if there were animosity between our families. If we were pressing for the maximum penalty… If we couldn’t let go of the desire for vengeance. I first met Gina in court on the day they read the charges. We were sitting in the pews, waiting. This woman came up to Sharon, and the way they greeted each other, I thought they were old friends. They chatted. I said something stupid about how lucky we were to have our freedom and not be on the other end of the criminal justice system. (Looking at the guys in shackles prompted that comment.) I had no idea that this cheerful, nice woman was “the mother.” I didn’t know her name, or anything about her. When she was called before the judge, Sharon turned to me and said, “I tried to tell you that was Gina!” Biggest foot in mouth moment of my life.
This whole thing makes me want to be more mindful, and careful. And think about the consequences of my actions. We all make mistakes and have regrets. And when we mess up, hopefully we can be forgiven. and learn to forgive.
August 21, my four-year-old nephew Cooper was accidentally killed. He had gone with his mom to walk one of his brothers to the bus stop, as he did every school day. Just after the bus full of kids pulled away, Cooper started to cross the street on his bike. A 15-year-old neighbor boy (who has not been named because he’s a minor), driving his family’s minivan, had stopped at the corner. His windshield was dirty. The sun had just come up over the mountain, and was shining across the lake directly into his eyes. The boy ran over Cooper without even seeing him.
You can see the photo of the helicopter that landed in the street, and a stretcher carrying him, and the minivan with its dirty windshield in the photo gallery here:
My brother called to tell us that Cooper had been run over, and that he was in the helicopter on the way to Primary Children’s hospital in Salt Lake City. I was downstairs, in my basement, doing my yoga practice, when my dad opened up the door and called to me. From the sound of his voice, I thought my mother had died. He sounded like a feral animal. I ran upstairs, grateful to see my mom was fine. We sat for a few minutes, crying, going over what my brother had said. On the way to the hospital, my mom kept saying she knew everything was going to be okay. I didn’t feel the same. We got through to my brother once while we were driving. All he said was that Cooper was in surgery, and that he would talk to us when we got there. All I could think was that he wouldn’t want to tell us that kind of news on the phone.
As we walked into the hospital’s atrium, I could see my brother walking brisky toward us. He went straight to my dad, embraced him, and said, “Cooper’s gone.” My dad started wailing. My 78 year old father, a quiet, reserved man, screaming, “No!” Over and over. Finally my brother said, “Dad, I don’t think they like people to do that here.” Obviously-sick children in wheelchairs were visiting with their families in the sunny atrium, while we fell apart. They took us to a grieving room. We waited there for Cooper’s two oldest brothers to come back (someone had taken them out to get something to eat, and I think they were riding the light rail), worried that they might find out from someone other than their parents that Cooper was dead. His six year old brother was the last to arrive. One of the family’s friends picked him up from school. He was hungry, so they stopped for something to eat on the way. When his parents told him what had happened, he threw up.
They brought Cooper into the grieving room, and everyone who wanted to got a chance to hold him and say goodbye.
What should happen to the 15-year-old boy, driving without a license, without insurance, who accidentally killed Cooper? My brother and sister-in-law met with the boy and his family a few days later. They told him they loved him, and that he was part of their family now. They told him they didn’t want his life to be destroyed by the accident. They hugged him and forgave him.
Today, my brother got up in juvenile court and said he supported the resolution the district attorney and the boy’s lawyer had proposed. No jail. I can’t get into the details, but I wanted to note that the attorneys and the judge all cried. They commended my brother and sister-in-law for their love and compassion, something they didn’t see much of in juvenile court. My brother stood and said he didn’t want the boy to be separated from his family, from his mother and father and sisters. What good would come of placing a boy who is a good student, loved by his family and friends, into the criminal justice system? It wouldn’t bring Cooper back. He wants to minimize the pain and suffering.
As we left, I asked my brother what would have happened if he wanted “justice.” He said he thought the boy would probably have served time. Now, he’s free.
In January, when I was back for a short visit, my mom and I stayed with the boys while their parents took a rare vacation. Every morning, Cooper and I walked his brother to the bus stop through the snow. Even in the winter, waiting at the bus stop was a neighborhood social event. I imagine there were at least a dozen people there the day Cooper died. It’s hard to imagine how it could have happened.
When I met the boy today, I didn’t feel charitable. But then I saw a boy surrounded by family, who are grieving as we are. And my brother, who could have asked for “justice,” but instead offered love and compassion.