Drunk driver baby help legal guidelines unfold in US with grandmother’s push
More than 20 states are considering legislation requiring drunk drivers to pay restitution to the children of parents killed in DUI crashes. It all started with one grief-stricken grandmother.
Missouri grandmother trying to change drunk driving laws
A grandmother has pushed more than 20 states t0 consider laws requiring DUI drivers to pay restitution to the children of parents killed in wrecks.
Amanda Lee Myers USA TODAY
When Cecilia Williams lost her grandson, son and her future daughter-in-law in a crash police say was caused by a drunk driver, she was in a haze of excruciating grief for a month.
Then she jumped into action.
The Bonne Terre, Missouri grandmother started doing research while the man driving the car that crashed into her loved ones prepared to face his first court date on charges of felony drunk driving resulting in death.
Williams said she found that all too often drunk drivers face little to no jail time, pay little restitution and re-offend. So she decided to craft legislation in her home state of Missouri in hopes of adding a deterrent for future offenders and some compensation for those left to raise the children of parents killed in drunk-driving crashes.
Williams called it Bentley’s Law after her 5-year-old grandson, who she is now raising along with his younger brother. The law would require drunk drivers who kill the parent of a minor to pay child restitution until they’re 18, with courts determining just how much on a case-by-case basis.
So far, a version of Williams’ legislation has passed in Tennessee, a bill will be up for a vote in Missouri next week, and similar legislation is being considered by 21 other states, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“It’s a movement,” Williams said. “I think it speaks volumes. It shows me that everyone knows that driving under the influence is a huge problem.”
‘They’re in heaven. They can’t come back’
Roughly 28 people die in drunk-driving crashes every day in the United States, or one person every 52 minutes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
For Williams’ loved ones, that day was April 13, 2021, when a truck driven by David Thurby of Fenton, Missouri hit a car carrying Cordell Williams, 30, his fiancée and youngest of their three sons while they were delivering food for a takeout app.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol said Thurby’s vehicle rear-ended the couple’s car, forcing it off the road and into a tree, where it caught fire. A preliminary test revealed that Thurby had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit, a trooper said in a probable cause statement.
Thurby, who suffered minor injuries in the crash and is out on bail, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His attorney, Travis Noble, said the preliminary blood-alcohol test was botched and Thurby maintains he was not drunk.
“We intend on going forward to trial and show that he’s not guilty,” Noble said.
Thurby is set for a pre-trial conference on May 18 and his trial is set for Aug. 29.
Williams said she is hoping a trial can be avoided and wants Thurby to change his plea to guilty. In the meantime, she’s now raising Bentley and his 3-year-old brother, Mason, along with two other grandchildren.
She said one of the hardest parts has been having to talk to her grandchildren about their parents.
Easter was particularly rough this year, she said, coming just four days after the anniversary of the crash.
“After Mason got up from a nap he told Pawpaw: ‘My mom and dad and baby, they died in a crash and their car burned up,” Williams said. “There’s been times when they’ll come and say ‘Mawmaw, do you think they’re still dead?’ You know, I’m sorry, but yes, they are. They’re in heaven. They can’t come back.”
Williams upended her life after the crash. Instead of returning to her job as a communications manager for a health care provider, she became a stay-at-home caretaker, waking at 5 am to cook a homemade breakfast for the boys, homeschooling them during the day and having a family dinner around the table before bedtime at 7:30 pm
In between, she works on Bentley’s Law, whether it’s talking to a lawmaker in Pennsylvania about the legislation or testing before a Missouri State Senate committee, as she did Wednesday.
“She’s a very strong person,” said Rep. Mike Henderson, the Republican lawmaker who is helping Bentley’s Law move through Missouri’s General Assembly and hopes to get the legislation passed by the end of the session.
“It takes a lot of strength to come back and fight like this, to try to get this in all these different states and move forward with it,” Henderson said.
‘True grassroots advocacy work’
The fact that a busy grandmother with no political or lobbying experience has managed to get so much traction with new legislation in just one year is pretty remarkable, Henderson said.
“(Twenty-three states) is an amazing figure to get to in that amount of time,” he said. “It takes somebody pretty special.”
Becky Iannotta, a MADD spokeswoman who has been helping Williams as the legislation has gained steam nationwide, said “it’s been really amazing to see” her take America’s legislatures by storm.
“She just had such an incredible idea and she’s so passionate and motivated and she’s just been able to accomplish a whole lot in a year,” Iannotta said. “This is true grassroots advocacy work.”
Williams’ cousin, Diane Sutton of Lexington, Tennessee, said her earliest memories of Williams are of her always looking out for her younger siblings and cousins, babysitting them regularly.
“She’s just a really good person,” said Sutton, who was instrumental in getting the legislation inspired by Bentley’s Law passed in her state and is helping with the nationwide effort.
“She’s trying to work through this tragedy,” the 45-year-old Sutton said. “She’s trying to show her grandkids that something good can come from something bad … That’s what pushes her, it’s her love for her family.”
Williams demurs when asked where she finds her strength, but eventually concluded it had to be her grandfather, a marine, a preacher, and a welder who helped built the St. Louis arch.
“One thing he always did tell us was, ‘Always stand up for something. If you believe in something wholeheartedly, you stand up for it. And when you put your effort into doing something, when you start something, you finish it,’ “Williams recalled her grandfather telling her.
Williams intends to do just that.