John Farrace pulls his car off the highway and onto the shoulder, stopping just a few feet away from a roadside memorial. He pauses for a second before opening the car door and stepping out into the cold. The winter forest is void of signs of life, except for a few trinkets on the ground—a purple stuffed animal, a high school wrestling t-shirt, and a few other goodies—left in memory of Anthony Farrace. Pictures of the handsome young man, with broad shoulders, white-blonde hair, and a million-dollar smile, decorate a tree. Next to it, American and Marine Corps flags fly on a 10-foot flagpole, installed by a person unknown to John, and bunches of fake white poinsettias have been shoved into the mulch surrounding its base. A t-shirt tied around the trunk has been there so long that fungus has begun to grow around the fabric.
Cars whiz by on the ruler-straight road cutting through the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The highway is so narrow and they fly by fast, but John doesn’t flinch. He’s focused on the pictures of his son. Like Anthony, his shoulders and neck are muscled, and when he talks his hands command space and his voice demands attention.
Though John and his family have mourned for six years, he says he does not feel “grief.” He thinks of Anthony throughout the day, every day, and yet, “grief” doesn’t describe what he’s experiencing. He thinks the word represents a weakness, at odds with how he sees himself: an ex-Marine, the head of his household.
A few feet away from the flagpole stands a tree where, on July 6, 2007, a Mercedes Benz crashed, killing his son. Where the passenger’s side hit, chunks of bark are torn off, and on the ground next to the tree are five-year-old piles of windshield glass. Five years after the accident, the Farraces were still reeling from their son’s death. As John sees it, his family was “given a life sentence by the hand of the criminal who should be in prison.” Across town live the McLaughlins, whose daughter, Danielle, dated Anthony and was driving the car when it hit the tree. They believe they’ve suffered enough, and they want to know when life can go on.
For a car crash six years past, the roadside memorial in honor of Anthony is remarkably well tended. The base of the flagpole is mulched, and, periodically, one of the Farraces, friends of the family, or even strangers drop off flowers or clean up the site. Six years after the accident that divided these formerly friendly families, John stands at the site of his son’s death and looks at the shattered glass.
When John and Claudia Farrace were first married, they lived in a brownstone in north Philadelphia, in the neighborhood where John grew up and thought he would never leave. But in 1990, when they had their first child, Anthony, the couple moved to a suburb named Marlton, a town of cul-de-sacs nestled among a tangle of highways in Southern New Jersey—a 30-minute drive from Philadelphia, though worlds apart. Not far away from the big roads that connect suburban New Jersey to the rest of the country hide communities where neighbors know each other and kids can play safely in the street. When Anthony was three, the couple’s second child, Diana, was born. Here in Marlton, where each ranch-style house has a front lawn and a two-car garage, the Farrace children grew up.
From a young age, Anthony dreamed of attending the Naval Academy and becoming a Marine. In middle school, he was bullied, his father remembers. Anthony wasn’t a follower who bent to peer pressure, John says with pride. He cared about schoolwork and didn’t make fun of girls. He stayed up past his father’s bedtime, hunched over his desk studying. During study hall, while his classmates chattered, Anthony hunkered down and worked. He was on the honor roll and in the Spanish club and a leader on his sports teams.
By high school Anthony, who wrestled, played football, swam, and lifted weights, had the build of a major league slugger. In one Facebook picture, he stands in front of an American flag, his big arms folded across a puffed-out chest, his chin tipped upward with insistent youthful swagger. A solemn look is painted on his young face and his crew-cut, natural white-blond hair is spiked in front, like a 90s boy band singer. When John talks about his son, his face is full of pain and he rarely smiles. But he breaks once, smiling when he remembers that Anthony wasn’t a naturally talented athlete: he was just tireless.
At 17, Anthony could have passed for 20-something, but he was still very much a kid. He shifted from foot to foot when he spoke, recalls Lauren Gage, a high school friend, and he dreamed big, like a kid who believes he can change the world. In one video of Anthony, recorded at a Cherokee High School wrestling match, he stands under the gym’s fluorescent lights in his usual stance: arms folded, Marine posture. As he talks about his commitment to the team and to becoming a better wrestler, his voice cracks, betraying his age. Still, his voice sounds like he was always smiling, and his boyish grin lit up even photographs. He was crush-worthy.
In freshman year at Cherokee High, Anthony developed feelings for a friend, Rachel Emig. For a couple of years they went through the motions of high school courtship; they flirted, but nothing really happened. At the beginning of junior year, he finally asked her out. Their relationship—Anthony’s first—ended after just two months. They were similarly driven and competitive in both school and sports. The relationship was fiery and, Rachel thought, too serious for such a young age. “For a long time I felt a lot of guilt,” Rachel said. “because I knew he felt a different way about me than I did about him.” She thought they were better as friends, and eventually he agreed, though “I always felt guilt for not being what he wanted me to be,” she says.
As romance often goes, within a few months, Anthony fell for another girl, a social butterfly, a pretty brunette with big brown eyes and a goofy sense of humor. Her name was Danielle McLaughlin.
Danielle lived down the street from Rachel, and the two had been friends since childhood. When Danielle asked for her friend’s blessing to date Anthony, she got the green light, and in March 2007, they became a couple.
Danielle was silly and outgoing, and when Anthony was around her, he was too. “She brought that out in him,” Rachel says. Around her, his anxieties about sports and school seemed to melt away. They walked together through the hallways of Cherokee High and acted “lovey-dovey.” In an age of ill-mannered teenagers, Anthony was chivalrous. When he wanted to date a girl, he asked her father for permission, and, even though they were dating, he asked Danielle’s father each time he took her out. Because Anthony didn’t have much money for dates, Danielle’s father offered to pay Anthony for help on construction projects around the house. He was a natural fit in their family, and they loved him. Danielle told Rachel that they planned on staying a couple in college, but that wouldn’t happen. She and Anthony were together only four months before he died.
Down the front hall and toward the back of the Farraces’ suburban house, just above the entrance to the kitchen, is a plaque that reads, “Home is where your story begins.”
They’ve lived on Marcy Court for nearly a decade, but Claudia still calls it a fixer-upper waiting to be fixed up. In the dining room, a poster from Anthony’s leadership camp—on which a fellow camper wrote, “I love how [you’re] not the typical football player!”—sits on the table that the Farraces never use. Next to it, atop a dark wooden bureau, pictures of Anthony surround John’s humidor. Sometimes, when he visits the cemetery, John takes two cigars—one for himself, one for Anthony. The living room is dark, the furniture looks untouched, and the room’s entrance is guarded by pet gate to keep out the family dog.
The Farraces spend most of their time in the back of the house, in a cozy carpeted family room with sliding glass doors that look out over the back yard and into a forest. A TV stand adorned with two football helmets—one from Navy and one from Cherokee High—is nestled in a corner.
They hoard like treasure chests boxes of documents about the crash. They have police reports, witness statements, Anthony’s post-mortem toxicology report, letters to politicians pleading to help reopen the case, and photographs from the scene of the accident. These documents are proof that their son lived, and tell the story about how he died.
Claudia leafs through a pile of photos, pausing to study one in which the Mercedes Benz is wrapped around the tree. She doesn’t cry. “I don’t think I ever saw these,” she tells John.
“I didn’t want you to see them at the time,” he replies.
“Sometimes it’s worse thinking about what happened than seeing a picture,” she says, then gets up slowly, putting her hand on the coffee table for support, leaving John in the room with the documents strewn about him. It was Claudia who had requested copies of the pictures from police, but when the images arrived in the mail, John had looked through them, examined each one, deciding it was best not to show his wife.
The car in the picture is a 1997 Mercedes with squared-off edges. Its right side wraps more than halfway around the tree trunk, bent as though it were made of aluminum foil. Where once there was a front passenger’s seat, there stands a tree. The seat and the young man who had buckled into it just an hour before had been thrust back behind the driver when the car crashed. The vehicle looks as though it might have been a convertible; it wasn’t. Emergency workers had to shear off the roof with the Jaws of Life, so they could pry Anthony’s body from the car. The windshield is destroyed and metal scraps lie on the hood. In the photo that Claudia had never seen, state troopers stand at the accident scene, on New Jersey State Route 70, which runs through the heart of the state’s Pine Barrens, 13.5 miles from Anthony’s home on Marcy Court.
The coffee table and John’s lap are littered with police reports, testimonies, and pictures he knows so well that when he talks about the crash, he quotes them from memory.
It rained most of the day July 4, 2007, and when Anthony headed home from Danielle’s to meet his midnight curfew, the roads were slick. His Honda hydroplaned, slid off the road and got stuck on the shoulder. John drove out to wait for the tow truck with his son. Everything appeared to be intact, but, just to be sure, John sent the car off to the mechanic the next day.
That put a bit of a wrench in Anthony’s and Danielle’s plans to spend the night at her aunt’s house in Tom’s River, about an hour’s drive from home. Because Anthony’s car wasn’t out of the shop in time, she drove. She picked him up in her charcoal-colored Mercedes on July 5 in the evening. His parents and sister came out of the house and hugged him goodbye. They expected to see him in the morning, after weightlifting practice.
On the morning of July 6, there was a thick, but steady, stream of traffic on Route 70. After making a pit stop at a Wawa gas station, Diane Rinaldi, a Philadelphia woman, who was driving home from Tom’s River with her mother and brother, pulled her car back onto the two-lane highway and headed westbound into traffic. It was just before 9 a.m. when a dark Mercedes pulled close to Rinaldi’s car and began riding her bumper. The car moved to pass and pulled into the lane for oncoming traffic, pausing beside Rinaldi’s car for a split second, long enough for her to look over and see the passenger: a fair-skinned young man with bright blond hair, wearing sunglasses, his window rolled halfway down. Rinaldi yelled at the car, What are you doing? And then the Mercedes sped up and pulled in front of her car.
Slow down, her mother cautioned from the passenger’s seat.
A few minutes after 9 a.m., Danielle was stuck behind a car carrier and made a move to pass, pulling into the lane for oncoming traffic. Too late she saw a truck headed for her and another vehicle in front of the car carrier. She veered right, back toward her lane, but went too far and drove onto the shoulder of the road. She overcorrected and the Mercedes jerked left. Then she lost control.
The car traveled in an arc across the road, across the solid double yellow lines, crashing into a tree the size of a light pole. Upon impact, Anthony, who was buckled into the passenger’s seat, was thrust back behind Danielle’s seat.
At 9:09 a.m. a call for help in a single-car crash on Route 70 at milepost 23.5 went out over dispatch. The trooper who arrived first on the scene found both kids buckled in. Danielle was fully conscious. Anthony still had a pulse and was breathing, but he was unresponsive. The officer called in a Fatal Accident Unit, a Crime Scene Investigation Unit, and a medical helicopter.
Within minutes, Anthony died.
As his body was airlifted to a nearby hospital, traffic on the road below slowed to a crawl. As she rolled slowly by the accident site, Diane Rinaldi turned to her mother and said, That’s the car.
Claudia and her daughter, Diana, heard first. They were supposed to pick up Anthony from weightlifting that morning, but when he didn’t come out of the gym with his teammates, Claudia grew concerned. None of his teammates had seen him either. Maybe he’d already gone over to his lifeguarding shift, but it wasn’t like Anthony not to be in touch, she thought, as she began to panic. So she and Diana headed to Marlton Lakes, where Anthony lifeguarded with Danielle and a couple of other high school friends. Instead of Anthony, they found Rachel Emig, his first girlfriend. Rachel helped them get in touch with Danielle’s mother, who said simply that there had been an accident. Claudia called her husband, who left work immediately.
The rest is a blur: Diana remembers sitting in the car on the shoulder of the road with her mother who was frantically talking with state troopers. There was an accident. Where was it? Is he alive? And then Claudia screamed. Diana didn’t need her mother to tell her Anthony had died.
John’s phone rang again while he was driving, and he pulled into a gas station to answer it. He doesn’t remember why he got out of the car, but he was standing in the parking lot when he picked up Diana’s call. On the other end of the phone, his wife wailed and John, a burly man, the former Marine, collapsed in the gas station parking lot, sobbing.
John knows he didn’t drive himself to the hospital, but he can’t remember how he got there. A coworker must have picked him up from the gas station, he says.
The Farraces were escorted through the emergency room, to a bed surrounded by a curtain, where Anthony lay. John reached down to touch his son. “He was perfect. You never would have known he was in a crash. He was,” John pauses and begins to cry, “just as handsome as ever. I remember just shaking him to wake up. He wouldn’t wake up.” Except for a little blood pooling in his ear, which his mother cleaned up with a tissue, Anthony looked like he was just sleeping.
The autopsy was performed that afternoon and included a routine toxicology report. He tested negative for everything, and his cause of death was listed as multiple blunt force traumatic injuries.
It’s easy to drive fast on Route 70. The two-lane highway cuts an undeviating path through the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a forest in Burlington County of more than 1.1 million acres populated with oak and pine trees rooted in sandy soil atop aquifers plentiful enough to fill every reservoir in New York City’s water system 30 times over. Drivers speed and pass on both the left and the right, driving onto the shoulder.
Along Route 70 the speed limit is, at the most, 55 miles per hour, but no one obeys the signs. Drive along at the legal speed limit and risk not just tailgating, but aggressive passing. There aren’t any landmarks on Route 70, which makes it hard to clock distance traveled. It’s tempting to drive faster to end your trip sooner. The monotony of the long unwinding highway is disturbed only occasionally by a great roundabout—and a break from the trees—before the road plunges back into the forest, densely packed with small trees, the soil too sandy and nutrient-deficient for taller ones to grow.
In the final accident report, dated August 8, 2007, Sergeant Robert J. Foulks, the investigating officer for the Fatal Accident Investigation Unit, determined that “Danielle E. McLaughlin operated a motor vehicle on a public roadway carelessly and without due caution.” Her careless driving, the investigator concluded, resulted in Anthony’s death and, “Given the available information,” he wrote, “appropriate action should be taken against Danielle McLaughlin in this matter.” But, to the Farraces’ dismay, the Burlington County Prosecutors Office disagreed and closed the case.
Instead, Danielle was charged with “careless driving” in the traffic division of Southampton Municipal Court. On August 1, 2008, more than a year after the accident, she appeared in court and accepted a plea deal: a six-month license suspension and $200 fine.
Because Danielle took a plea, the case was over, and the seven indictable complaints John and Claudia had filed with the Southampton Township Municipal Court charging Danielle with driving infractions from “racing on the highway while operating a black Mercedes” to “operat[ing] a black Mercedes in an unsafe way” were thrown out. Police witnesses, including Diane Rinaldi, who testified she had seen Danielle driving recklessly minutes before the crash and whose testimony was the basis for the Farraces’ complaints, were not heard.
The Farraces had seen this hearing as a last chance for justice and, once again, they felt denied. Though their complaints weren’t considered, John was allowed to read from a prepared statement: “Words seem trite in describing what follows when your son is taken from you in morning light, when he is stripped from your life.” He talked about the pain his family experienced after Anthony’s death, and as John read aloud, Diane, who six years later says she still prays every day for Anthony, sat in the courtroom and cried. She looked over to see Danielle wearing a sundress standing at the defendant’s table restlessly shifting from foot to foot. In a letter to the Farraces dated February 3, 2009, Diane wrote: “I was sick last August when I heard the penalty given to that arrogant girl.” She continued, “I wanted to laugh when her lawyer said she lost a boyfriend.”
Dissatisfied with the plea deal, John began writing letters to the Burlington County prosecutors’ office in the hopes of getting the criminal case against her reopened. When his request was denied, John moved on to other government officials and politicians. In December 2007, he wrote to Deputy Attorney General Jennifer L. Gottschalk and requested that Danielle be charged with vehicular manslaughter. In response, John got a civics lesson from Hester Agudosi, the Supervising Deputy Attorney General. Agudosi cited the Criminal Justice Act of 1970, which dictates that the states endow each prosecutor with the power to determine who and who not to prosecute. The Attorney General’s office plays a supervisory role and protects against acts of malfeasance, but the role of the office is not to investigate individual cases. The Attorney General, Agudosi continued, had no jurisdiction in the matter and referred John back to the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office.
As the months passed, John continued to write letters.
In one such letter, to Thaddeus Drummond, the assistant prosecutor for Burlington County, dated February 2008, John became aggressive. “I am demanding,” John wrote, “that a criminal conviction is sought, not only for the driver, but whoever else is involved with obstructing this investigation.” Within 10 days, Drummond responded: “My decision regarding reopening this case will be based upon the facts before me and not upon any threatened Internal Affairs investigation.”
So John cast a wider net, writing to every New Jersey politician he thought might have the power to reopen or influence a criminal case against Danielle, and though he received offers of condolences, he never got the answer he craved: a promise to pursue criminal charges.
In an unaddressed statement entitled “In Honor of My Son, Anthony,” dated February 18, 2009, John wrote: “I will not go away. They have severely underestimated my commitment to honoring my son’s death by bringing to light and convicting the negligent driver who killed my son, as well as those who stood in the way of justice.”
In June 2009, he wrote to Senator Frank Lautenberg, who referred John’s letter to Senator Philip Haines, who promised to investigate why the Burlington County Prosecutor had decided not to prosecute. Robert D. Bernardi, Prosecutor for Burlington County, replied:
“While we fully understand and recognize the tragic loss suffered by the Farrace family, we are obligated to review the evidence in cases in an objective fashion. In this case, our determination was that there was insufficient evidence to move forward and this was confirmed by an independent review by the Division of Criminal Justice. Still, I completely understand that this is no solace to the Farrace family who has lost a wonderful seventeen year old son. I also realize they are continuing to have a difficult time in accepting this decision.”
The wake seems to have been a turning point in the way the Farraces felt about Danielle, but every memory of that evening seems to conflict.
From the moment the doors opened on the day of Anthony’s wake, July 11, the church flooded with people—more than a thousand classmates, friends of the family, and people whom Anthony had met only in passing. They talked about what a good kid he was and recounted stories about Anthony that his family had never heard. For hours, a line snaked down the aisle, out the door, and around the building. Long after the church was supposed to close that night, mourners were still lined up waiting to pay their respects.
Beside the open casket at the front of the church, there were two tables laden with the things Anthony had carried through life, including his wrestling singlet and his football helmet. Next to the table stood his family: first John, then Claudia and Diana, followed by Anthony’s three surviving grandparents. Claudia’s mother had died the prior winter. Scattered around Anthony and his family were funereal flower arrangements, including one from Danielle’s family.
Everyone seems to have conflicting memories about the wake; even the Farraces say that it was a blur. Jason Druss, who, in an elementary school performance of The Wizard of Oz, had played the Scarecrow to Anthony’s Tinman, stood in line with his parents. He remembers seeing Danielle in a wheelchair being greeted warmly by the Farraces. But Rachel Emig remembers things differently. She was there when Anthony’s cousin approached Danielle and told her to pay her respects and to leave.
It hadn’t always been like that. Right after the accident in fact, the Farraces had supported Danielle, and collective opinion held that the accident indeed had been an accident. But after a few days, the Farraces and family friends turned against Danielle, said David Gilbert, one of her close high school friends. He couldn’t understand the dramatic shift and he was shocked that Danielle was shut out, as though she didn’t care about Anthony. “I don’t think people wanted it to be an accident,” says David. “It became a thing where you had to pick a side. It’s like they didn’t think she believed it was a big deal.” As Danielle became the enemy, the Farraces’ grief took root, and their anger grew.
For the week following the accident, Danielle’s friends slept over every night to keep her company, and every night they cried themselves to sleep. Danielle dreamt about the accident and woke to tell Rachel that she felt Anthony near her. “For the first couple days,” Rachel says, “she was very quiet and she would basically cry on and off all day.”
During that week, police came to the McLaughlin house to re-interview Danielle. For 20 minutes or so, Rachel stood in the kitchen talking with Danielle’s mother while the police questioned Danielle. “We were all a little bit freaked out,” Rachel says. “She was kind of all cried out. The past few days had been exhausting.”
For a while after the accident, Rachel and Danielle remained close, but the McLaughlins became suspicious that Rachel’s mother was talking negatively about their daughter, and soon they shut Rachel out.
During the flurry of media coverage and the outpouring of anger directed at Danielle, the McLaughlins remained silent. The Farraces have not restrained themselves with the press, and they talk angrily about her, though Danielle’s name is never printed. An article published in South Jersey magazine in July 2008 quotes Claudia: “She gets to go to college and do whatever she wants with the rest of her life,” she says. “We have to live the life sentence of losing our son.”
Danielle blocked her Facebook and since then, she’s protected her Twitter account. She attended Cabrini College just outside of Philadelphia, where she focused on becoming a journalist. Out of respect for Danielle’s family, her close friends still refuse to speak with media. An untagged photo of Anthony and Danielle posted on his Facebook May 7, 2007 is one of the few remaining vestiges online of their relationship. In the picture, Anthony’s sitting at the end of a long table, Danielle to his right, and he looks happy.
The first day of her senior year, Cherokee High held a moment of silence for Anthony. That year his friends sold t-shirts marked with “50,” his football number, in his memory. A plaque was hung in the wrestling room with a quote Anthony used to say: “Honor is always doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Students made banners emblazoned with the words “in honor” and Anthony’s friends stopped talking with Danielle. When they were around, David remembers, she wasn’t.
The McLaughlins live in a patch of the New Jersey pine barrens, on a road inappropriately called an avenue and named Clearfield. There are no lane markers and the road cuts through the forest, dead-ending several hundred feet past the McLaughlins’ house, a building the size of a lodge, tucked back from the road with a lot of cars parked outside. For months the McLaughlins ignored attempts to contact them.
Then, one Saturday morning early in March, Dan McLaughlin saw an unfamiliar car driving down Clearfield and past his house. I paused at the end of the road and got out of the car to collect my thoughts and my notebook. But before I could turn around and head back to the house, I saw a pickup truck driving toward me. He’d followed me the few hundred feet from the family’s home to the dead end and parked his car in front of mine, blocking the way out. He left his car idling and got out of the driver’s seat.
Hi Anna. You’re prettier in person than you are in your picture.
Hi Dan. It’s nice to meet you.
He said he’d been expecting me. He spoke softly and asked why a car accident in rural New Jersey five years ago was interesting today. “I don’t know what John’s trying to do here,” suggesting without asking that John Farrace had paid for press attention. The accident was, Dan said, just that: an accident.
He remembers that after the crash his daughter kept repeating: His blood was on me. He was talking to me. His blood was on me. He was talking to me.
In the days following the accident, the McLaughlins went to the Farraces’ house three times. The first day, John Farrace hugged Danielle. He kissed her, Dan said. The second day, they were asked to leave. And on the third day, before they could come inside, the McLaughlins were told they weren’t welcome at the house on Marcy Court.
As he talked about the accident, the aftermath, and his family, Dan spoke softly, looking up at the sky and shifting from foot to foot. His untucked green flannel shirt hung over his belly. He stayed close to his white pickup truck and the engine idled loudly.
Dan contradicted the police report that said Danielle’s injuries had been minor. His daughter’s hip, he said, was broken in eight places, that she still regularly feels physical pain. She was deeply affected by the accident, he said. For a year afterward, she didn’t drive, and when she did get behind the wheel again, her confidence was shot.
Anthony’s death was terrible, he said, but it’s five years later and there’s still life to be lived.
He asked again: What could possibly be interesting about this car crash? The tension was between two families. It was not a matter of larger public concern. Why grief? he asked. Why not happiness?
After an hour, Dan said he’d talked enough. He lingered a minute or two longer, then got into his truck and drove the few hundred feet back to their house.
Immediately following the car accident, the Farraces worried whether Danielle was okay and asked after her. But over the course of a few days, their attitude seemed to shift. They grew cold toward the McLaughlin family, and their anger blossomed. It was as if they needed to believe there was a reason Anthony died. “It was an accident” just wasn’t good enough.
Though nothing in the police report suggests Danielle was intoxicated when the car crashed, the Farraces decided it was the only explanation. “Everybody says to us, ‘What do you mean she wasn’t tested?’” Claudia says. “We didn’t know it wasn’t a law. How would we know if we weren’t in this situation?”
After the accident, while she sat in the back of an ambulance, police questioned Danielle. They asked if she had been drinking, and she responded no. She didn’t smell of alcohol or appear to be drunk, and when police found no liquor bottles in her car, they didn’t question her further.
Anthony’s post-mortem toxicology report was clean, and according to the Fatal Accident Investigation Report, Danielle was not tested. She did not appear to be drunk or under the influence, so police did not have probable cause to administer a field sobriety test, or a blood test.
That didn’t matter to the Farraces. If anything it made them angrier, and the absence of evidence proving or disproving Danielle’s sobriety only inspired the Farraces to believe she must have been under the influence.
They took their questions to Nelson Albano (D-District 1), a New Jersey assemblyman who knows how it feels to lose a child. Before he was a politician, he was a father. Albano’s son was 19 when his car was struck by a drunk driver’s in 2001; he was killed. To cope with his own devastation, Albano became an advocate for stricter driving laws and ran for the New Jersey Assembly to champion stricter driving legislation. “I believe,” Albano said, “every parent needs to find an answer as to why their child was taken.”
In 2008, the Farraces met with Albano and Paul D. Moriarty (D-District 4) at the Statehouse’s caucus room in Trenton, where constituents come to air their grievances and concerns to legislators. The Farraces were there to advocate for an amendment to driving legislation that would mandate that the police conduct sobriety tests on drivers involved in car crashes resulting in fatalities or severe bodily injury. After the accident, they were surprised to find out it wasn’t already law, and so were the assemblymen.
During a 45-minute conversation, the Farraces gave the assemblymen documents they had collected about the car crash. With that, the legislators’ investigation period was over. Albano did no further research to find out if Danielle was intoxicated, he says.
The drunk driver who had killed Albano’s son was released on parole in March 2012. Almost immediately, Albano began pursuing legislation that would allow victims’ families to attend parole hearings. The Daily Journal quoted Albano afterward, “That is not the deal that we made as a family,” implying that his family should have had a say in whether or not the driver would be released. “Albano is upset that he had no say in the matter and wasn’t allowed to attend Rosado’s parole hearing,” The Daily Journal wrote. But it’s the judicial system that determines and doles out justice, not families.
Albano pushed the legislation not because he had any proof that Danielle was intoxicated, but because he believes that when someone dies in a car accident, the family of the victim has a right to know why. “Was it an accident,” Albano asks, “or was it something that could have been prevented?”
The legislation that the Farraces pursued would have required the police to administer sobriety tests to drivers after all car accidents resulting in fatalities or severe bodily injury, and it was first introduced in the New Jersey State Assembly March 9, 2009. In 2012, nearly three years after the bill was first introduced, it still hadn’t passed. When another Assembly session began January 10, 2012, the bill was reintroduced, and Albano attributed the delay to committee debate about the possibility that the amendment would violate a driver’s Fourth Amendment rights—the protection against illegal search and seizure.
Despite the holdup, in 2012, Albano was confident that the legislators were getting close. The lawmakers were getting around potential Constitutional violations, Albano said, by further amending the bill to include language allowing a driver to refuse the test and instead take a $1,000 ticket—the same fine levied against a suspected drunk driver who refuses a field sobriety test.
“If I were involved in an accident like that, I would want to prove that I was innocent,” Albano pitched. But in 2012, the bill went nowhere in the legislature; it wasn’t reintroduced in 2013.
This debate about whether police officers can legally order warrantless blood tests in the aftermath of a car accident isn’t new. A 1966 Supreme Court decision, Schmerber v. California, ruled that only given probable cause is it legal for an officer to order a warrantless blood draw. According to the officer in that case, the suspect’s breath smelled of alcohol and he showed visible signs of intoxication—in short, probable cause.
In January 2013, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Missouri v. McNeely, in which the state argued that if an officer pulled over a driver who was driving erratically, he had the right to order a warrantless blood draw to determine whether or not the driver was drunk. The question in front of the court was simple, and closely related to questions about the Farraces’ legislation: Did the fact that blood alcohol levels rapidly decrease over time qualify as an exigent, or emergency, circumstance? After all, as time passes, alcohol levels rapidly decrease, and the evidence proving (or disproving) a driver had been drunk would disappear. Exigency allows the state to disregard the Fourth Amendment and is established if evidence is at risk of being destroyed. In April 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that warrantless blood draws were not legal, that the mere fact that your body processes alcohol—thus eliminating evidence—does not give the state the right to conduct a search without probable cause. In the opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “Whether a warrantless blood test of a drunk-driving suspect is reasonable must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances.”
After the accident that killed Anthony Farrace, police determined there was no probable cause to suspect Danielle had been under the influence. And they did not test her.
Since the day in the caucus room, the Farraces haven’t talked with either of the legislators and they only heard that their meeting with Albano and Moriarty had birthed a bill in 2009 when they read about it in the newspaper. Though Claudia keeps tabs on the bill’s progress now, neither parents have testified or advocated for its passage. In a statement dated 2009, John wrote, “I know having a law in honor of Anthony won’t bring him back, but he is well deserving of this, as he lived his life by a code of honor and courage.” He referred to the bill as the “Anthony J. Farrace law.”
But the Farraces balk now at the idea of naming the legislation after their son. They know new driving legislation isn’t always met with a warm reception, and they don’t want to taint Anthony’s memory.
John Farrace opens the van’s passenger door and makes sure it’s shut before he walks around the front and gets in the driver’s seat. He starts the engine and turns over his left shoulder to see if any cars are coming, before pulling onto the highway and heading toward Lakeview Memorial Park, where Anthony is buried.
American flags flying full mast whip around the flagpoles lining the cemetery’s driveway. It was the third graveyard John and Claudia visited when they were shopping for Anthony’s burial plot, and the American flag salute sold them on Lakeview. Anthony was a patriot and an eager candidate for the Naval Academy, and “he loved his flag,” John says, as he drives through the iron gates, past the flags, over the bridge, and up through the rows of headstones. He stops the car, gets out, and walks into the rows of graves until he reaches a plaque in the ground that says “Farrace.”
John stands quietly at his son’s grave, and a peace settles on his face. He softens and his voice is warmer. Quietly, John begins to cry. “I’ve never cried here before,” he says. “Not even the day he was buried. I think this day’s the first day. I don’t cry, ever.”
When John bought his son’s grave, he bought three more spots, one for himself, his wife, and his daughter. “When I go,” he says, “I get to be with him.” Anthony’s life wasn’t what it could have been, but John takes solace in knowing that one day he will lie next to his son.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.