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A Tale of Two Vehicular Manslaughters

5:43 PM, Jul 31, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Today, the Washington Post told the crushingly sad story of 12-year-old Cortavia Harris. The Maryland 7th-grader is searching for solace this week in the sentencing of her little sister's killer.

It has been almost a year since the August night when Michael Eaton, on his way from a bar, slammed his car into Cortavia's family's car at about 90 mph, crushing the back end of the Jeep into the front seat, and killing 10-year-old Jazimen, who was asleep with her head on Cortavia's shoulder. Cortavia awoke in the hospital with a broken pelvis to find out about her loss.

"I will never forgive the man," she said, in an interview with the Post.

While Jazimen's grandfather was emerging from the driver's seat to find Jazimen lifeless in the back seat, and Cortavia helplessly reaching out to him, Michael Eaton kept driving his Range Rover. He eventually parked the car and walked to a nearby hotel.

He called 911 during the night, reporting his own arm injury, but not the fatal wreck he had caused on I-270. He hung up on the dispatcher and did not answer return calls from 911 operators.

It was not until 3:30 p.m. the next day, more than 12 hours after the accident, that Eaton turned himself into Rockville, Md. authorities.

Eaton was sentenced to eight years in prison for vehicular manslaughter this week (although he may be eligible for parole in four). For Cortavia, it's not much comfort for the lost lifetime the girls would have shared.

"You deserve whatever you get," Cortavia wrote in a letter read in court. "It probably won't be a lot, but I will live through it."

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on another man who once left a party after several drinks, taking a young female passenger with him.

Around midnight, he drove over a treacherous little bridge, accidentally piloting the car off the road and into the channel, where it came to rest, wheels-up underwater. He extricated himself from the car, leaving his female passenger behind as he surfaced. After attempting to dive to rescue the passenger, he walked back to the party, bypassing several houses with telephones in favor of summoning two friends from the party back to the scene of the accident.

The trio dove several times in an attempt to rescue the passenger, but could not. The two friends urged the driver to report the accident to police, and he assured them he would, subsequently swimming back across the channel to his hotel.

Once at the hotel, the driver changed clothes, chatted with the innkeeper at 2:25 a.m., and paced in his room until daylight. At 7:30 a.m. he was chatting with an acquaintance outside the hotel about boating and possible brunch plans when his two friends arrived, asking him what he had done about the accident.

He had done nothing. The driver then went to a pay phone, where he called close friends and relatives to seek advice.

In the meantime, two fishermen came upon the car, and reported it to police, who sent an emergency diver. The diver has said the young woman's position in the car suggests she might have survived in a pocket of air long enough to be rescued by a professional, had the driver called authorities immediately.

Only after her body was recovered did the driver turn himself in. "I just couldn't gain the strength within me, the moral strength, to call Mrs. Kopechne at 2 in the morning and tell her that her daughter was dead," Sen. Ted Kennedy said at the time.

Kennedy received a Presidential Medal of Freedom this week, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon any American civilian.

Liberals freely lionize the good senator, thinking nothing of honoring him at the 2008 Democratic National Convention with a tribute video with a water motif, no less. It is considered bad form for conservatives to mention Mary Jo Kopechne (who would have been close to 70 now if she had lived), especially now that Kennedy himself has fallen ill with a brain tumor.

But surely people can be forgiven for seeing little difference between the actions of Michael Eaton and Ted Kennedy, and a great deal of difference in the consequences they paid for them (Kennedy got a two-month suspended sentence and his license was temporarily revoked). And, surely some can even be forgiven for thinking that no amount of elected service or sponsoring of legislation should make either man eligible for this incredibly high honor.