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UPDATE:

10-22-05

A Patriot Ledger series: Summary | PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | UPDATES

Melanie's Story

A first-hand story from the grandfather of 13-year-old victim Melanie Powell
Memories of Melanie: A photo slideshow

STORIES

State ranked among the worst in nation
Quincy judge was among first to take a hard line

GRAPHICS

PART 1
TIMELINE: How Massachusetts drunken driving law has changed
Alcohol's causes and effects
How local and state courts treat repeat drunken drivers
Busiest courts in state for drunken driving arraignments

PART 2
The cost of drunken driving

PART 3
Massachusetts fails compared with other states
Death toll from drunken driving



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Gary Higgins photos/The Patriot Ledger
Ron Bersani, grandfather of drunken driving victim Melanie Powell, in the hall outside the Senate at the State House.

‘NOTHING FAZED ME ’

The force behind Melanie’s Bill personifies persistence

Patriot Ledger State House Bureau

Ron Bersani was at Furnace Brook Middle School in Marshfield when he decided he had a job to do.

It was January 2004. Bersani’s granddaughter, 13-year-old Melanie Powell, had been killed by a repeat drunken driver the previous July.

Now Bersani and Melanie’s grief-stricken parents, Tod and Nancy Powell, were speaking to students at Melanie’s old school. They had been invited to speak at a sixth-grade DARE graduation, and it was the first time they had publicly opened up about their loss.

Compromise Bill

IN

A new charge of vehicular manslaughter punishable by 2 years in jail
New minimum mandatory sentences
Ignition locks for repeat drunken drivers
Mandatory treatment for drivers with a blood-alcohol content of .20%

OUT

One-year loss of license for refusing to take a Breathalyzer test, up from the current 180 days
Allow prosecutors to use Court records can be used proof of prior drunken driving convictions
Mandatory jail time for drivers who register with a .20% percent blood-alcohol level
5-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter


Ron Bersani awaits the Senate vote on Melanie’s Bill at the State House.

“We looked out and there was a sea of 12-year-old kids - boys and girls,” Bersani said. “We realized that a year before, Melanie would have been in the audience. It just hit home.”

Bersani said it just made sense that his late granddaughter would want him to do something to prevent similar tragedies.

Out of tragedy, new laws

POSTER CHILDREN

Megan, Amber, Jeffrey, Taylor. Now Melanie and Nicole.
Jeffrey Curly
Abducted and killed
in 1997, age 10
 
Megan Kanka
Raped and murdered in 1996, age 7
 
Abducted and killed in Texas in 1996, age 9

All children who died tragically over the last 10 years and lent their names to causes.

The rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton Township, N.J., in 1996 by a sexual predator who lived in the neighborhood inspired laws around the country to register sex offenders. So far more than 500,000 names have been posted online, including 9,400 in Massachusetts.

Later that year, Amber Hagerman, 9, was abducted and killed in Arlington, Texas. Now she is remembered for an emergency alert system that has been credited with saving 200 children across the country.

Jeffrey Curley, a 10-year-old from Cambridge, was kidnapped and killed by two men in 1997. In death he became the face of a campaign that came within a single vote of restoring the death penalty in Massachusetts.

Taylor McCormack of Pembroke died in 2000 at 13 months after her emergency surgery was delayed. Four years later, her parents were with Gov. Mitt Romney when he signed Taylor’s Law, legislation giving victim’s families the right to confront doctors at disciplinary hearings.

Melanie Powell, 13, of Marshfield was killed by a repeat drunken driver in 2003. She has become the poster child for the current bid to toughen drunken driving laws.

Nicole Garofalo, 7, was poisoned by carbon monoxide in January as she slept in her Plymouth home. Nicole’s Law, a bill to require carbon monoxide detectors in buildings with three or more apartments, is nearing a final vote in the Legislature.

For the bereaved families of the children, the causes offer some consolation, the opportunity to salvage some good out of tragedy. But nothing they accomplish dims the pain.

“We’re members of a club no one ever wants to belong to,” says Melanie Powell’s grandfather, Ron Bersani.

For starters, as a student at Furnace Brook, Melanie enjoyed getting to know the local DARE officer, Bob Quigley.

“Melanie absolutely loved the DARE program,” Bersani said. “She would come home and tell Nancy about what she had learned.”

Nancy Powell told Bersani what he had already been thinking - that something should be done to protect other people from similar fates.

So began a crusade to put what would become Melanie’s Bill - far-reaching legislation to crack down on repeat drunken drivers - on the books.

Bersani started to do research and learned that Massachusetts did little compared to other states to keep repeat drunken drivers off the road.

Bersani’s granddaughter Melanie Powell, 13, of Marshfield, was killed by a drunken driver in 2003.

By October 2004, when driver Pamela Murphy was sentenced to 2½ years in jail, Bersani had become expert in what other states were doing to discourage drunken driving. And he was regularly writing letters to elected officials, prodding them to do more, and sending letters and op-ed columns to newspapers. It didn’t hurt that as a former English teacher at Marshfield High, he knew how to write.

Fortunately, Bersani already had some acquaintance with state government. As executive director of the Talking Information Center - a reading service for the blind that grew out of WATD in Marshfield - Bersani knew how to fight for state funding.

“That was a phenomenal advantage,” Bersani said. “Nothing fazed me. I knew you had to be persistent, and detail-oriented, and you had to be a nice guy. You couldn’t walk in screaming.”

Bersani’s longtime friend, Phil Johnston - whose wife, Beverly, is a longtime board member of the Talking Information Center - offered to help. Johnston, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, arranged a meeting over the winter with Bersani and House Speaker Sal DiMasi.

Bersani walked in with a long list of proposals to combat drunken driving, and made his case to the speaker.

“Ron’s been a hero,” Johnston said. “He and his family wanted to make something positive out of the terrible tragedy they suffered. As horrible as her loss is, Melanie may have inadvertently protected the lives of a lot of other people.”

Then last May, Bersani’s frequent letters to Gov. Mitt Romney were answered in spades. The governor’s office called the Powells to ask if they could put Melanie’s name on an omnibus package of anti- drunken driving bills.

“The governor wanted to take a personal approach,” Bersani said. “We went in and looked at the bill, and we said wow, they took a lot of good ideas and put them together. We were absolutely on board.”

And then the roller coaster began.

Bersani and the Powells - with the help of a scheduler from the governor’s office - sought to set up meetings with all 200 state legislators. Some granted an audience, some didn’t, but Bersani became a regular presence in the halls of the State House, often with the Powells in tow.

“He was almost like a teacher again,” said Rep. Frank Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat. “He met with virtually every legislator on the House and Senate side, and carried with him a folder with lots of facts and figures on repeat drunk drivers. The guy is so professional, and so matter of fact, and presents his case so well.”

Hynes credits Bersani with getting Melanie’s Bill as far as it has gotten to date. So does Ed Melia of Quincy, who also began stalking the halls of the State House after losing a great-granddaughter last August in an accident allegedly involving a repeat drunken driver.

“He’s articulate, he’s focused, he’s very determined,” Melia said. “How many people do you know could last that long? He’s been at this for so long, and he’s still going strong.”

Added Beverly Johnston, “What he’s done is virtually unprecedented. I’ve seen a lot of ardent people for a lot of difference causes, but I’ve rarely seen that combination of politeness and doggedness, steadiness and energy.”

Bersani spent all of Wednesday and Thursday at the State House, as the House and Senate passed what many consider a watered-down version of Melanie’s Bill. He will return next week, when Romney is expected to return the bill to legislators with an amendment restoring some of the provisions that were dropped.

He remains confident.

“If the people who oppose this bill think they’re going to wait us out, they better bring a lunch, because we’re not going anywhere,” he said.

Tom Benner may be reached at tbenner@ledger.com.

 

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