I wrote thousands of stories for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram over 30 years, most of them long forgotten. I’ll never forget this one, from 2010. It speaks, I think, to who we really are as humans, and reminds me so much of Fred Rogers’ favorite saying, “The only thing that evil can’t stand is forgiveness.” I felt privileged to be a part of it, to be able to write it down.
For more than a year, from the time of the fatal wreck in January 2009, Peggy Pierce’s first waking thought was of her dead son, Joshua Carter. Then came the dark feelings, the visceral hatred for the drunk driver who killed him, a woman named Erica Kolanowski.
On that horrible winter night, 20-year-old Josh and and his 21-year-old friend, Matthew Lundy pulled into a busy Arlington intersection on a green light. At the same time, Kolanowski was racing down Green Oaks Boulevard in an SUV at more than 70 miles per hour (the speed limit was thirty). She had spent the night drinking at two different bars. Her blood alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit.
Kolanowski ran a red light and broadsided the car of the two young men. Josh was killed instantly, Matt permanently maimed.
It was more than a year later that Kolanowski stood trial in Fort Worth for manslaughter and assault. The courtroom would be the first time Peggy would see the defendant in person. She would finally have a face for her hatred. Then, during testimony, the mother took the stand, and looked down at the defense table, at the young woman with short dark hair who spent most of her trial in tears.
“I didn’t know how I could be in the same room with her and not try to strangle her,” Peggy told me later. “But when I was testifying, the minute I looked in her eyes — she was hysterical — I saw raw emotion. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m scared that I might have to go to prison.’ It was more like, ‘I would do anything in the world to give you your son back.’ “
Something shifted deep inside the grieving mother.
“That night, when we got home, I told my husband, ‘I’ll admit this to you but not anyone else. When I looked into her eyes, I didn’t feel hate. I felt compassion.’ “
Peggy and Matt’s mother, Vicki Hanzelka, became good friends after the crash, sharing a bond of loss and bitterness. They both had insisted that prosecutors seek the harshest punishment for Kolanowski. They wanted a message sent to the community, but the two mothers also wanted vengeance.
Vicki took the stand during the trial to describe a long hospital vigil when it seemed unlikely that Matt would survive, then his excruciating therapy in the months to come, and the family’s financial devastation because Matt did not have health insurance.
The mothers got their wish. Kolanowski was sentenced to 16 years in prison, punishment almost unheard of for a first-time offender. But neither mother rejoiced. Independent of each other, their hearts had changed.
“I began to realize how difficult the jury’s decision had been,” Vicki wrote the day after the trial. “At some point, looking into Erica’s eyes and watching her … something happened. I am sick with grief and fear for Erica. When I think of her in [prison] I’m absolutely petrified for her … This is not what I expected to feel and honestly, to be quite frank, this is not what I want to feel … But she is still a human being … she is someone’s child … she is someone’s mate.”
The two mothers talked on the telephone the night of the sentencing, both of them stunned by how their feelings had simultaneously changed toward the woman who had destroyed two young lives.
“I didn’t want Peggy to feel that I was betraying Josh or his memory by feeling that way,” Vicki said. “Peggy said she had very similar feelings. … I think we saw Erica not as this horrible monster that hurt our boys. She was a small and fairly weak-looking human being. I asked Matt last night if he felt any compassion for Erica and he said: ‘No. She got what she deserved.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, Erica wasn’t perfect before this happened, but honey, were you?’ “
“Matt never drank and drove, but he could have made a poor decision that could have landed us in a horrible situation,” Vicki said. “I think it really opened his eyes to the fact that we could easily have been on the other side of this story. I’m just sick for all of us.”
After the trial, as Peggy and Vicki tried to sort through conflicting feelings, they both said an emotional burden had been lifted.
“I carried hate around since that night, and I was beginning to drown in it,” Peggy said. “I think she should be punished. Josh and Matt got life sentences. I think this is a light sentence compared to what they got. But she’s sorry for what she did. I hate what she did. I hate the choice she made, but I don’t hate her.”
The night of the verdict, Peggy lay in bed, thinking of her son, but also of Erica.
“I just knew how scared she must be,” Peggy said.