By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007
To the locals, it's the "McMissile" case.
And like the name, the details of it spill forth like a bad joke: A woman is driving north on Interstate 95. Three kids squirm in the back seat, and her sister, six months pregnant and having early contractions, sits in the front. The stress starts to simmer. Traffic slows, then crawls, then creeps. More stress. A car cuts in front of her, then scoots away. A short time later, it darts in again. She can no longer take it. She veers onto the shoulder and speeds up. Wham! She tosses a large McDonald's cup filled with ice into the other car.
"From my side, I heard a whoomp," recalled the woman's sister, LaJeanna Porter, 27. "I was like, 'I know you didn't throw that cup.' She said, 'Yes I did.' "
Neither woman foresaw the seemingly supersize repercussions of that misguided moment July 2.
No one was injured, but the cup launcher, Jessica Hall, 25, of Jacksonville, N.C., was charged and convicted by a Stafford County jury of maliciously throwing a missile into an occupied vehicle, a felony in Virginia. The instructions given to the jury said that "any physical object can be considered a missile. A missile can be propelled by any force, including throwing."
Hall, a mother of three young children whose husband is serving his third tour in Iraq, has spent more than a month in jail.
The jury sentenced her to two years in prison, the minimum, and a judge will formally impose a sentence Wednesday. Under state law, the judge can only decrease the jury's sentence.
"We didn't think it would go this far," Hall said in an interview at the Rappahannock Regional Jail. "Two years! What did I do?"
There are two versions of what happened that day. The occupants of both cars agree on this: It was hot, the kind of hot in which legs stick to leather seats, and the traffic was barely moving, slowed by a fatal crash up the road in Prince William County.
In one car, driver Pete Ballin, 36, and girlfriend Eliza Fowle, 28, were heading home to the District after visiting her father in North Carolina. They said they were maneuvering through the stalled traffic, not even noticing Hall until the Mickey-D moment.
"I guess we inadvertently merged back in front of her," Fowle said. "She apparently took that as some sort of aggressive maneuver on our part."
The next thing they knew, Fowle said, Hall was pulling up in the emergency lane and "chucking a big, supersized McDonald's cup at us." It flew diagonally across Ballin and onto Fowle. "It was gross and sticky and got all over me and the front of our car, the dashboard and the windshield," Fowle said.
Hall, whose family was driving from North Carolina to New York for a family party, saw the situation differently. She said she had never driven that route and was trying to keep up with her father's truck when Ballin cut in front of her the second time, causing her to swerve onto the shoulder. She said she was worried because her sister's bulging belly almost slammed into the dashboard.
Hall's next move was wrong, she said, but she felt provoked.
"It was past me ignoring him. I'm not going to lie; I was cursing him," she said. "I took the McDonald's cup. I tossed it over my car."
She never fathomed that it would land her in jail for the first time in her life, wearing a standard-issue jumpsuit frayed up both legs and learning to curl her hair using toilet paper. Not even when she saw Ballin talking to the state trooper up the highway, or when she was arrested and released on her own recognizance, or even when a trial date was set for Jan. 3.
Even when Ballin testified, Hall said, "I'm thinking about what I'm going to cook when I get home."
"I passed out when they said guilty, two years," she added. "I became a convicted felon."
Fowle stands by the couple's decision to report the crime but concedes that even she and Ballin were surprised at the conviction.
"I think that this is way too much of a punishment for her actions. This is just to me absolutely ridiculous," Fowle said. Community service would have made more sense, she said. "It's something that's going to make someone realize I did screw up, and I'm going to remember this, and I'm not going to do something like this again."
Hall's attorney, public defender Terence Patton, did not return calls for comment. Nor did Commonwealth's Attorney Daniel M. Chichester or Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney George Elsasser, who handled the case.
Elsasser argued in court that had Ballin been hit by the drink, he might have gotten into a serious accident with injuries. Hall also was found guilty of reckless driving, assault against Ballin and assault and battery against Fowle. For her conviction on those charges, the jury recommended she be fined $1,000.
According to court documents, Hall is unemployed and, with her husband's salary, the couple takes in $30,384 a year. She receives $388 a month in food stamps.
"It doesn't seem right for her not to be around," said Porter, who is watching one of Hall's three children, ages 4, 6 and 8. The younger two are with their grandparents. "We just hope that whatever they do, don't let them keep her. Without her, I don't know what I'll do."
Hall said she has cried every day she has spent locked up and wakes most days to find clumps of hair on her pillow from the stress. She shares a cell with two other women and spends 19 hours a day in the cell, she said.
When Hall talks about the incident, she sometimes jokes about how she will only fly over Virginia from now on and says other inmates sometimes throw things in her direction and say, "Watch out McMissile."
But in other moments, when she talks about the reality of a felony conviction, her expression goes blank. She was supposed to start nursing school the day after she was sent to jail, and she wonders what job she will be able to get once potential employers do a background check.
"Now people are going to see me as an angry, road rage, convicted felon. And it really upsets me," she said. "I must have been wrong . . . but seriously, God. Lesson learned. Lesson learned is one hour in this place."