Reporter's Notebook: Parents treasure son's memory, advocate for crime victims

Joe Mahoney 

ALBANY — Regina and Michael Stewart entered the New York State Capitol, each carrying an urn containing the ashes of their son, Christopher.

It had been more than six years since Christopher, at 17, was identified as one of two high school students killed by a drunken driver on a highway north of Albany. Two of their classmates, passengers in the vehicle driven by Christopher, were injured in the horrific crash.

The carnage was caused by Dennis Drue, now 28, whose Volvo sedan went out of control while he was texting about a marijuana deal and after he decided to get behind the wheel while intoxicated.

By the time of the crash, Drue had racked up 22 motor vehicle offenses. He is now serving a sentence of 5 to 15 years for aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter and vehicular assault, among dozens of other offenses.

The parents of Christopher Stewart came to Albany to speak to lawmakers about their ongoing travails as family members of a high school football standout whose life was taken from him before he was old enough to vote.

The Stewarts, from Clifton Park, spent a year learning about New York's parole process before they got to participate in it last July. It was an experience that made them conclude the state comes up short in the way it deals with crime victims.

New York's parole board has 19 commissioner positions but seven of them are now vacant. The shortage, according to Regina Stewart, resulted in her and her husband getting to meet with just one commissioner, instead of three, when they provided input on how their son's death impacted their lives.

They also faced a battery of bureaucratic requirements regarding photographs and other material they wanted to share with the parole board.

The photographs had to be marked on the back with an explanation as to why they were being presented. The parents learned they could also produce a video and share that, but only if it met the standards.

"You have to have your act together when you go into these meetings," Regina Stewart said. "We needed to bring four sets of the pictures and we needed to bring four copies of the DVD. It couldn't be on a thumb drive. It couldn't be in any other format. It had to be on a DVD."

The mother paused for a moment, and then said, "That is a lot to put on a family that is already stressing out over whether this person is going to be released or not."

The state provided a stenographer to transcribe what the Stewarts told the one commissioner who met with them at the victim impact portion of the proceeding.

But, as Regina Stewart related, that commissioner was not going to be part of the panel of commissioners who were about to meet with Drue.

"We had to hope the commissioner we sat with shared our information and our gut-wrenching conversation, and that the other commissioners looked at the DVD we provided," she said. "But we didn't know if they did."

The parole board eventually rejected Drue's application to be released. Under state law, however, he will have another hearing next year.

Regardless of the gravity of the offenses for which they are convicted, convicts who are within reach of their parole eligibility date have the right to a parole hearing every two years. The Stewarts said they support legislation advanced by Senate Republicans to change that interval to five years. They are also working on a recommended checklist designed to amplify the voices of victims.

Two blocks away from where the Stewarts talked about their frustrations, carved into stately oak paneling at the Court of Appeals courthouse, is an image of Lady Justice, the blindfolded figure that portrays the legal system's goal of achieving balance in a fair way.

But these days, with many lawmakers promoting an end to cash bail for lesser offenses, the Stewarts made the case that the state now seems intent on giving short shrift to the crime victims and their loved ones while catering to those who violate the laws.

"We have to start thinking of the victims and not just the offenders," Michael Stewart said. "But things seem to be weighted the other way, unfortunately."

Though it's been less than a year since Drue was denied parole, the Stewarts are already preparing for the next hearing. Vacancies on the panel remain unfilled, and the Stewarts said that makes it difficult for the commissioners to fully review all material presented to them.

"We don't have Chris anymore but we are going to be protective of him any way we can be," Regina Stewart said.

The Stewarts left the statehouse, just as they had arrived, carrying their late son's ashes.

"They go with us wherever we go," Michael Stewart said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.