As far as society was concerned, that was the end of State versus Curtis Payne. The rusty-haired teen-ager received a sentence of three years in prison for his part in a grisly highway accident here last May that took the lives of Jeanne and Jay Cyr, a young couple from Germantown. As the bailiff hustled Payne away, the many friends and relatives of the Cyrs who had packed the courtroom filed quietly out of the Talbot County courthouse, and Payne's girlfriend cried "Curtis, I love you!"
Nothing is exceptional about dying on a highway in this country. In Maryland the number of deaths is declining, but more than 400 people have been killed this year, and it is impossible for the authorities, the newspapers, the sundry parties on the periphery of any accident not to turn from the subject with an accustomed shrug.
But consequences continue to reverberate through the lives of the people drawn together by that particular evening in May when Curtis Payne, fleeing a police officer, hurtled through an intersection on Rte. 50 in Easton at more than 80 miles an hour and smashed into the car in which Jeanne and Jay were heading home from a day at Ocean City. For relatives and friends it is not a matter that can be easily resolved, in part because the cause of the accident is difficult to understand.
It was not an act of malice but a twist of fate. Although the Easton police report says that alcohol was "a contributing factor," Payne was not charged with any alcohol-related offenses; prosecutor Philip Foster said there were no reasonable grounds to give Payne a blood test.
Foster did suggest in court that what made the case so hard to accept was that it was caused by "stupidity and indifference to the rights of others."
William Horne, Payne's lawyer, touched on another explanation that raises as many questions as it answers. Curtis Payne saw the police speed after his father, who had squealed his tires in a parking lot, Horne said, and the younger Payne set off in his truck to draw the attention of the police. The idea was "misguided, stupid and immature," Horne allowed, but it sprang from a troubled teen-ager's sense of familial allegiance: "He did it for his father."
And so, for different reasons, pain lingers. For the families of Jeanne Violette Cyr and Jay Peter Cyr, the past four months have given the lie to bromides about time and healing.
"We have our good days and our bad days," Jean Cyr said as he took the stand last week. "As my 20-year-old son has said, 'People say it will get easier with time, but it doesn't get easy.' " Ruth Violette, who kept her daughter's wedding ring, remembered Jeanne exclaiming how happy she was the week before her death. Later, she said she gets especially sad when she looks at the missing places at the table on those occasions when the whole family would have been gathered for supper.
Last month, Ruth Violette said, the family put Nicky--an elderly poodle that would do anything for Jeanne--to sleep. "In a way that was a relief," said Ruth, "because there was tremendous connection between Nicky and Jeanne."
Jeanne's sister, Denise Violette, said last week outside the courtroom that she has sought out priests and psychologists in the months since her sister was killed. She keeps her sister's wedding dress in her closet. She finds it hard to hang out by the pool at her parent's house in Silver Spring where Jeanne's absence is conspicuous. Raised in a strongly Catholic family, she wonders "why is God taking all the good people?"
"Every day I wake up I think it will be easier, but there isn't a day that goes by that I don't cry," Denise said. "Jay and Jeanne are not the victims. My family are the victims. Jay's family are the victims. Their best friends are the victims. The people who are left behind are the ones who are hurting."
For Curtis Payne's father, Robert, suffering is edged with guilt--guilt spawned in the knowledge that his son, in however warped a way, had been trying to help him out when the crash occurred.
In his auto body and paint shop off Rte. 50, not far from the intersection where the accident occurred, the bulletin board is pinned with clippings from local sports pages: "Payne tosses 1-Hitter." "Payne hurls, hits Easton to win." In back rests the mangled pickup, a reminder of his son's negligence and misfortune. In front stands a cherry-red Chevrolet with a plaque mounted on the glove compartment: "This 1959 Chevrolet was rebuilt in 1983 for Curtis Payne by his father Bob."
As Payne looked at the truck one afternoon last week, his brown eyes filled with tears. "Rebuilding that kept me sane," he said. "When Curtis left my house last night he said, 'Dad I love you.' I can't remember the last time he said that. It's not in his nature.
"He's introverted like me. He keeps things inside him. He didn't go out with the intent to kill those children. If you were to ask him right now he'd say they should be alive and not him. He would give his life to bring them back, but the parents of these people, they don't know the way he feels.
"It's over for you, it's over for the newspapers, it's over for the public, but it'll never be over for the Cyrs, or for Curtis or me. What he did was for me. I'm right there with him in jail. I'll think about this the rest of my life."
Robert Payne places the start of his son's troubles to the collapse of his marriage to Curtis' mother in 1981. The eldest of three children, a high school football, baseball and wrestling star, a member of the National Honor Society, Curtis was distressed about his parents separation, his father said. He changed his friends, Payne said; he started drinking too much. According to prosecutor Foster, Curtis Payne's driving record within the last two years includes convictions for speeding, driving without a license and failing to stop at a property damage accident.
It is impossible to say what impulse prompted Curtis Payne to wheel his truck onto the highway on May 14. Police Chief R. Edward Blessing blames the whole sorry matter on "too much Dukes of Hazzard." It was a Saturday night, and shortly after 9 o'clock. According to court statements and interviews, Curtis' father laid a patch of rubber as he pulled out of the Easton Plaza parking lot where he had been hanging out with Curtis and some of his son's friends. Seeing the police give chase, Curtis jumped in the blue GMC pickup his father had fixed up for him and barreled up Chapel Road.
The tragedy unfolded in the space of a minute. An Easton police officer saw the younger Payne, took the bait that Curtis had apparently intended him to take, and chased him down Chapel Road, to Washington Street and through several smaller alleyways and side streets before pursuing the pickup back onto Chapel Road.
The officer clocked Payne's speed in excess of 80 miles an hour as the pickup truck raced toward a stop sign at the corner of Chapel Road. The officer braked. The pickup did not. It traversed two southbound lanes of Rte. 50. Crossing the median, which is higher than the northbound lanes of Rte. 50, all four wheels of the pickup left the ground and the half-ton vehicle flew through the air, according to police, and plunged into the roof of Jeanne and Jay Cyr's Pontiac Sunbird. The couple had just resumed their trip home after stopping in Easton for supper.
The "accident severity" as noted by the Maryland state police, was "5," for fatal. Rescue workers who tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate Jay Cyr brought up blood from his lungs with an aspirator. There was nothing they could hope to do for his wife. Both were 24 years old. The funeral was held at the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville where the couple had been married 18 months before.
Payne, who lived through a crash so severe that the engine of his truck was expelled from the chassis, had only minor injuries. In June, he pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter and other charges. Last Wednesday, wearing a blue suit and a stricken expression, he appeared before Judge John C. North to be sentenced.
Denise Violette, who had come to witness the sentencing, wore a gold choker that had belonged to her sister Jeanne. Linda Rogner, Jeanne's older sister, had stopped by the intersection to see where her sister had died. Gene Violette's hands were clenched.
The sisters of Jay Cyr cried when their father took the stand to tell of his son's standing in the community, how Jay's softball team at W. Bell & Co. had named a trophy after him, and how the residents of the couple's community in Farmingdale had mounted a plaque in the new community center in memory of Jeanne and Jay.
As for Curtis Payne, he will spend the next month or so in the Talbot County jail before the Corrections Department finds him a cell somewhere in the Maryland prison system. Briefly, at his sentencing, he spoke to the court and to the families of Jeanne and Jay Cyr.
"I know it's not going to make the friends of the Cyrs feel better or bring them back," he said, "but I am sorry for what I did."