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A lesson, reinforced

A crew from “Dateline NBC” was in the courtroom Tuesday in Kelso when the verdict was read in the Fred Russell case – guilty, guilty, guilty. The judge asked a bailiff to disperse letters from the newsmagazine show to the jurors. “Dateline” is hoping jurors will agree to be interviewed for a segment on the Russell case.

“Dateline” will likely tie up the case in compact and dramatic TV fashion. But the messiness of this horrific case will live on. For starters, Russell’s attorneys will certainly appeal the guilty verdicts on the vehicular homicide and vehicular assault charges. These charges stemmed from the 2001 night when three students were killed, and three others seriously injured after Russell’s Blazer slammed into their car. Part of the appeal will be based on Russell’s blood sample lost in the chaos and mess of the state’s toxicology lab.

So there is a chance of another trial or even an overturned verdict. It’s not over yet.

There is one lasting takeaway – we hope – from this tragedy: the consequences of drinking and driving.

This is not a new message: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. But the Russell trial fused the message with emotion. And messages stick better when strong emotions are associated with them, especially the emotions of anger and revulsion.

It was easy to feel both as witnesses described Russell’s drinking in the hours leading up to the accident. He bought a half-gallon jug of vodka. He and six others drank it. He then drank Guinness in a bar in Pullman.

Then he got into his Blazer and drove. Then, the horrific accident. Right after, a woman allowed Russell to sit in the warmth of her car. The smell of alcohol was so overwhelming, she had to leave her own vehicle.

Was there one person that day who might have stopped Russell? Said you’ve had too much to drink? Taken his keys? Offered to get behind the wheel instead? The what-ifs will haunt a long time.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 700 college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries, including motor vehicle crashes. And 599,000 more are unintentionally injured under the influence of alcohol.

When excess drinking becomes the norm, as it has among some college students, it’s harder for a peer to say, “Don’t drive, Dude.” But now students can evoke the images that linger from the Russell trial. The killed and injured students were coming home from a movie. In an instant, they were gone.

Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. Believe it. In honor of Brandon Clements, Stacy Morrow and Ryan Sorensen – the three who needlessly died June 4, 2001 – live it.

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