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LM sophomores and Montco officials discuss drunk driving death

Lower Merion High School sophomores and the district attorney and assistant district attorney of Montgomery County discussed the 2006 death of student Jessica Easter, who was killed while a friend was driving while under the influence.

For 16-year-old Drew Wilby, the Montgomery County District Attorney's presentation on drinking and distracted driving, illustrated by the 2006 death of Jessica Easter, really hit home, literally – the site where Easter was killed is particularly close to Wilby's Belmont Hills house.

"You hear about these crashes on television or read it in the newspaper, but when it's close to your house it makes it that much more of a reality," the Lower Merion High School sophomore said.

Wilby was among more than 30 sophomores in the white and cherry-walled Lower Merion High School lecture room, listening to Assistant District Attorney Brad Richman and District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman discuss Easter's story, as well as driving under the influence, in general.

The presentation was part of the partnership between the county and Lower Merion High School's health class program to prevent drunk and distracted driving, substance abuse and dependency, which includes a video and discussion between students, Richman and Ferman. The health class program has also taken place at Harriton High School.

The video, produced by Montgomery County, chronicles the crash that resulted in Easter's death, and the conviction of 19-year-old driver Steve Meloni, then a freshman at the University of Vermont, who served nearly five years for Easter's death.

At about 2 a.m. on March 24, 2006, Meloni and Easter were celebrating a friend's birthday with six other teens, two cases of beer and some use of marijuana, eventually getting in Meloni's green Subaru. Meloni, who was driving under the influence, was going around a corner on Harvest Circle when Easter tried to get out of the car and smashed into a utility pole as the car collided with a street curb.

Easter died instantly.

Richman said the charge for this type of crime is called homicide by vehicle.

"The difference between this and the normal crimes we try is that people we try are not monsters," Richman said during the presentation. "They're kids like you…everyday kids who made bad decisions."

"This is kids killing kids, kids killing their friends," Ferman said in the video, standing in the snow by the utility pole where Easter died.

The remainder of the video showed statements from Richman, Meloni, his mother Debbie, Easter's father and her mother Jeannette – who was at the Lower Merion High School assembly – and Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Judge Rhonda Lee Daniele, who presided over Meloni's case.

"There was nothing I could do that would bring her back," Daniele said in the video. "It was the hardest decision I had to make in 12 years."

Richman reiterated the judge's remarks, emphasizing that there is "no joy in sending a 19-year-old kid to prison for three or more years."

In the video, Meloni himself, speaking from a state correctional facility, lamented how the disaster could have easily been avoided.

One of the final parts of the video explored the myths behind DUI or distracted driving:

Myth 1 – if I don't drink or do drugs it won't happen to me.

Myth 2 – a little bit of marijuana won't hurt.

Myth 3 – I'll be fine if I avoid major highways and roads

Myth 4 (Ferman said this was the biggest) – It'll never happen to me.

"I don't think Jessica or Stephen were sitting on their beds that morning, thinking, 'is this going to be a good day or a bad day for me?'" Richman said.

The point was further emphasized when Richman asked the students in the room how many of them thought they'd be dead or in jail by the end of the day. Not one student raised his or her hand.

When Ferman spoke to the high school students, she reminded them of two factors out of their control in these crash situations: The laws of physics and luck.

"The one control you do have is over your decisions," Ferman said.

Students in the first three rows told Ferman the presentation and video made these crashes real, and not something removed from the Lower Merion community.

When a male student asked Ferman how many homicides by vehicle cases are tried in Montgomery County and the state each year, the district attorney said there are dozens across Southeastern Pennsylvania.

"One is too many," Richman pointed out.

Before the end of the presentation and discussion, Jeannette Easter got up and spoke to the Lower Merion students about Jessica, her only child.

"I could imagine her sitting here one day, in these presentations like you," Easter told the sophomores. "Did I ever think anything like that could happen to my daughter? No."

"It could be your friend," Easter added. "How would you feel to be Stephen? Or Jessica? I really ask you to think twice, it might save somebody else's life."

Students not only heeded Easter's plea, but also revealed their upcoming projects to help educate and bring awareness to prevent these tragedies.

Sixteen-year-old sophomore Stephen Hoffman is working with Assistant District Attorney Richman and the forensics department in Montgomery County to create a lesson plan on the physics of DUI crashes.

"All it take is 10-12 seconds," Ferman said during the presentation.

Hoffman said he felt inspired by Richman's lesson on the issue during a previous class, so much so that the two had a discussion that resulted in Hoffman's summer job to help design the curriculum.

"I love math and science and I get to use both while making a difference," Hoffman said. "This is a really exciting opportunity."

Members of the Youth Advisory Council of the Coalition for Youth of Lower Merion and Narberth discussed with Ferman their plans to create a video to make their peers aware of Pennsylvania's Good Samaritan Law, which passed in June 2011. Ferman told the students to send her the video of the law, which acts as medical amnesty to encourage underage drinkers to call 9-1-1 if a friend under the influence needs help, so she could have it posted on the county's site and social media channels.

Still, Ferman's reminder about decisions remains the last line of defense.

"If you make a bad decision and a crash starts to unfold, there's no getting out," Ferman said.