Kevin Tunell stood quaking before a room packed with his high school peers. His hands shook. His voice quivered. He squeezed out the words.
"I'm not a blind murderer."
It was more of a plea than a statement; an appeal from a high school senior in khaki pants, buttoned-down collar and Topsiders, convicted of manslaughter and drunk driving for the death of an 18-year-old girl.
Tunell has been sentenced to spend the next year reliving that New Year's Eve night before groups of high school students, parents and teachers. He began that sentence yesterday afternoon at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax County.
"I think this is going to be a harder punishment than sitting in jail," said Tunell, 18, responding to criticism that Fairfax Juvenile Court Judge Michael J. Valentine's sentence was too light for a drunken driver responsible for the death of a young girl.
Tunell recounted the night in detail, spending almost an hour before 250 students in a school library. He'd been drinking champagne, five or six glasses, at a party with his classmates in the Virginia suburbs that night. His friends had warned him not to drive home and had tried to take away his car keys.
"But I had to be macho and cool," said Tunell. "I drove anyway."
He drove only two miles before his car swerved into the path of a Volkswagen driven by Susan M. Herzog, a senior at Robinson High School, who was driving home from a party where friends said nothing stronger than Dr. Pepper had been served.
There was a head-on collision and Herzog was killed instantly. Tunell suffered a few cuts and bruises and "the burden of knowing I killed someone."
Within his first days back at Fairfax High School after the accident, Tunell said he felt the hate.
"You start getting the stares. People look at you wondering, 'What kind of a kid is this?' " he said, his voice choking. "Friends asking you 'How does it feel to have killed someone?' "
His hands shook. He twisted the blue senior ring that was supposed to represent the best year of his school life.
Tunell said he walked the school halls, seeing the face of Susan Herzog, whom he had never met, in the face of every girl that passed him.
And it followed him home. "I sit up in bed all night long thinking how I killed somebody. You're always condemning yourself."
Earlier in the day, students in a government class at Lake Braddock Secondary School had been condemning Tunell, too, according to Creston Owen, a student at the school.
"In the class, the names Kevin Tunell and Susan Herzog were constantly repeated," said Owen. "The kids kept saying he killed her and he's doing nothing for it."
Many of them were in the audience and also were skeptical before Tunell spoke. But when he finished most were loudly applauding and many of the girls were weeping, as was Tunell.
"After listening to him, I could feel the pain he was going through," said Owen. "I hope to hell these people listen to him."
So does the judge who sentenced Tunell to spend many hours each week for the next year lecturing his peers and their parents on the evils of drunk driving. Tunell was a juvenile at the time of the accident and became 18 last weekend. In addition to the year of public service work, Judge Valentine stripped Tunell of his driver's license and placed him on probation until his 21st birthday.
"I wouldn't like anybody here to go through what I've had to go through," said Tunell at one point. "If it just helps one person, though, it will make me feel better."