DUI crash victim forgives driver

URBANA — Diane Smith has a huge heart.

Even though she can't walk or use her dominant hand because of critical injuries inflicted on her by a drunken driver last summer, she has forgiven the man and told the judge who sentenced him that prison probably wasn't the best place for him.

"My concern was that he stay out of jail, go ahead and work like he'd been doing, and put an ankle bracelet on him and if he got behind the wheel, then send him to jail. It's overcrowded. They're already trying to close some," Smith said.

Although Champaign County Judge John Kennedy was moved to comment that Smith had reminded him what mercy was, the judge still sentenced Andrew W. Lewis to 10 years in prison earlier this month.

That was the number of years the state agreed to recommend when Lewis, 27, whose last known address was in the 700 block of Erin Drive, Champaign, pleaded guilty in January to aggravated driving under the influence. He'll have to serve at least 85 percent of that.

Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Dornik said Lewis admitted he was drunk on the Fourth of July as he drove east on Bradley Avenue near Willis Street in Champaign, crashing head-on into Smith's westbound car at 8:40 in the morning.

A forced blood draw done on Lewis revealed that his blood-alcohol content was 0.24 percent — three times the limit for an Illinois motorist to be presumed intoxicated. There was also evidence in his blood that he had recently used cannabis and cocaine, Dornik said.

It was his second DUI. The first was in 2010 in Iroquois County. He also had prior convictions for manufacture or delivery of cannabis and criminal damage to property, Dornik said.

As part of his plea agreement, another case accusing him of armed violence, unlawful use of weapons and possession of controlled substance stemming from his arrest in southwest Champaign in April 2012 was dismissed. Dornik presented evidence of that to Kennedy at sentencing.

Lewis' attorney, Mark Lipton of Champaign, said Lewis was extremely remorseful and has taken advantage of counseling and self-help programs since being jailed last July.

"He had known her before the occurrence. He wrote her a letter but there's no way he can undo it. It's done," Lipton said.

Lewis made the request for drug court, knowing that it was unlikely he'd get it, given the extent of Smith's injuries. He also asked the judge to recommend him for placement in the Department of Corrections' long-term drug treatment program at the prison in Sheridan.

In spite of Lewis' past, the 56-year-old Smith, of Urbana, liked the guy, whom she happened to know as her sister's neighbor. He often joined in family get-togethers at her sister's house and she had known him about a year.

"He was a nice person. We got along well. He did some of my sister's yard work, cut the bushes. Every time we had get-togethers, he was always out there and we talked briefly," she said.

The family had a holiday get-together planned that day and Smith was headed for the County Market store on Mattis Avenue. She was going to stop at her mother's house in Champaign first to see if her mom needed anything from the store. She didn't make it there.

"That day I was praying to the Lord about how wonderful the day was. It was a beautiful sunny day. It wasn't hot yet, but it got hot after I was pinned in that car," she said. "I was conscious until the firemen pulled me out of the car. When they laid me on the stretcher and got me in the ambulance, I don't remember nothing from there."

Her sister later told her it was Lewis who had hit her. He was also pinned in his car and injured but was in the county jail two days after the crash and has been there since.

"I didn't think he was a bad person," Smith said. "He was just doing the wrong things."

Lewis' "wrong things" led to injuries that will permanently change Smith, who's had 10 surgeries since the crash and learned last week that the lower portion of her right leg will soon have to be amputated.

Both her legs were broken. Her left wrist was broken. A tendon in her right wrist was cut. She can't walk or get out of bed without help, and she still has a brace on her left hand.

"As it heals, the bone in it healed crooked. I can't turn it up or down. This is the hand I write with. I've learned over the months to try to write with my right hand, but I write like a kindergartner," said the mother of four adult children who's lived in Champaign County 27 years.

She worked at Carle for several years and most recently was employed as a home health care worker.

Ever the optimist, Smith said her left leg "is healing OK," even though she still can't bend it at the knee.

"I'm doing pretty good, just laying here right now thinking about what time they're going to come for therapy," she said Friday morning.

Smith spent about six weeks in Carle Foundation Hospital recovering sufficiently from her injuries to be transferred to a nursing home. After a brief stint at Helia Health Care, she transferred to Heartland Health Care Center on East Springfield Avenue in Champaign when there was a bed available, because her 73-year-old mother works there as a nurse.

"She's such a trouper. She has never been a complainer," said Mary Perry of Champaign. "She was a preemie baby. She weighed 4 pounds when she was born."

Perry, an almost 30-year member of the Canaan Baptist Church in Urbana, imparted her faith to her daughter, who also attends that church.

"My daughter has been a testimony," Perry said.

She praised her daughter's "wonderful" Carle doctors and called them part of their family.

"The doctor said Diane was one of the best patients he's ever taken care of," Perry said.

Indeed.

Smith said the doctor told her months ago that a partial amputation of her right leg was a possibility so when that news was confirmed for her last week, she said she was prepared.

"I'm handling it pretty good," she said, adding that forgiveness, a positive attitude and her faith in God have helped her physical healing.

"I haven't cried yet. What God has in store for me, he knows and I'm just living to tell about it," she said.

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rooftop wrote on April 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm

amazing story. I hope this lady has a miracle cure, I told my kids this story today about her and showed them the photo . God Bless. I never knew people could be drunk driving that early in the mornings but they do... so unfair... Praying for complete recovery . For the man who was drunk driving, it is really sad so many continue drunk driving when they know what can happen to an innocent person and their family.

Marti Wilkinson wrote on April 13, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Forgiveness is the most powerful tool that people can have. By forgiving the man who hurt her, Smith is able to move forward in peace and grace.

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim--letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”
C.R. Strahan

jlewis6950 wrote on April 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm

This is truely an amazing artical. Mrs Smith is an amazing woman. She not only moves many people with her forgiveness but she also moved her assailent. Andrew Lewis is my son. I have never seen him so determind to do right by anyone. His past has not been good by a long shot, but with his family and Mrs. Smith behind him his future will be worth living. I talked to him Wed. night, the night before he left Champaign County Jail, and he is ready to move ahead. He is ready for what is ahead of him. God speed Andy. Diane is ready for her next step also. Please keep her in your prayers. I sure will and so will Andy.