By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009
Last summer, 12-year-old Cortavia Harris spent her days playing with Jazimen, the kid sister. They were so close that they promised to live within a block of each other for the rest of their lives.
On Thursday, Cortavia found herself in a Dodge Durango, passing the exact spot on Interstate 270 where Jazimen was crushed to death last August by a hit-and-run driver. Cortavia was heading to a sentencing hearing for the driver, who had plowed into the family Jeep at between 88 and 98 mph while Jazimen, then 10, slept with her head on Cortavia's shoulder in the back seat. The man, who had been drinking, abandoned his car, fled to a nearby hotel and waited more than 12 hours to turn himself in.
Cortavia had written a note to the driver in advance of the hearing to be read in Montgomery County Circuit Court: "You deserve whatever you get," Cortavia wrote to Michael Eaton of Fairfax. "It probably won't be a lot, but I will live through it."
The sentencing hearing has become a ritual for surviving crime victims. The hearings are as varied as they are tragic. In Cortavia's case, she lost a sister and found out what happened when she awoke in a hospital bed with a fractured pelvis, according to Cortavia and her family.
The hearings can help survivors move on. But as four hours spent with Cortavia on Thursday shows, there are limits to what the hearings can do for them.
"I will never forgive the man," Cortavia said yesterday after watching Eaton led off in handcuffs to serve an eight-year prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident. Eaton -- who has previous convictions for drunk driving, reckless driving, selling marijuana and speeding -- could be eligible for parole after serving less than four years, prosecutors said.
Minutes before, his voice shaking, Eaton spoke to Judge David A. Boynton, at times looking at Cortavia and her family.
"I've taken the life of a child," said Eaton, who pleaded guilty. "I'd do anything to bring that back."
He said he had quit drinking and wanted to help others avoid making similar mistakes. "This has changed my life and given me a purpose," he said.
Cortavia's journey to the courtroom began shortly before 1 p.m. yesterday at her home in Frederick County, where she lives with William and Angela Warr. William was Jazimen's grandfather, and the Warrs are raising Cortavia.
The three headed south on I-270. Cortavia busied herself in the back seat sending text messages to relatives. One of them wanted to know what grade she was about to enter.
"Ninth," announced the rising seventh grader.
"You wish," Angela Warr.
Minutes later, they approached the wreck scene, near Shady Grove Road.
Angela Warr began sniffling.
"You okay, babe?" William Warr asked.
Cortavia looked out the window.
It was there, the night of Aug. 21, that Cortavia and Jazimen were in the back seat. "Good night," they said to each other, as Jazimen went to sleep on her sister's shoulder, Cortavia said in an interview.
Headed south at the time was Eaton, after an evening of drinking. He slammed into the back of the Warrs' Jeep, crushing the back half against the driver's seat. Jazimen suffered skull fractures. Her neck was broken.
William Warr remembers getting out of the Jeep and looking into the back seat. Jazimen's head was bent forward. Cortavia tried to reach out to him.
Eaton kept driving, getting out of the Range Rover and walking to a hotel, authorities said. At some point, he called 911. He reported that his arm was hurt, but he said nothing about a wreck on I-270 before hanging up, and he did not answer the phone when dispatchers called back, according to a 911 transcript and prosecutors.
Maryland State Police searched for him, tracing his activities before the wreck to the Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg, where he racked up two bar tabs totaling $107. Included were 17 bottles of Corona, 2 Lemon Drops and 1 Cuervo Gold. Police learned that he might have bought some of the drinks for others. At 3:30 the next day, Eaton turned himself in at the state police barracks in Rockville, police said.
By that time, Jazimen had been pronounced dead at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, and Cortavia, having been flown by a helicopter, was hospitalized at Children's National Medical Center. She went to her first day of school in a wheelchair.
She has only recently been speaking to relatives at length about her sister. In an interview by text messages this week, she wrote: "I would probably have done a lot of things with Jazimen this summer, like go swimming or go to Ocean City. . . . My friends and I have sleepovers, but other than that I'm really bored. I think it's because I'm used to having someone bug me.
"We really loved each other. We couldn't really imagine growing up and not living together."
In court yesterday, two substance abuse counselors and a family friend spoke on Eaton's behalf, saying he suffers from a bipolar disorder that he made worse by drinking and using drugs. They said he understands that he is an alcoholic, takes his medication and no longer drinks.
"He was devastated by what occurred," one of the counselors testified.
Eaton's mother, Patricia White, stood in the middle of the courtroom and turned to face Cortavia and the Warrs, seated in the front row.
"I want you to know I think about you every day," White said, choking back tears.
Angela Warr cried and shook. Cortavia avoided White's gaze, turning to her right and doodling a smiling face onto a small card.