Eric Smallridge was about to head home from a beach-side bar. He was upset that his truck wouldn’t start, and then his friend approached him.
“Eric, are you sure you can drive tonight?” he remembers his friend asking. Smallridge knew other people who got DUIs in high school — it didn’t seem like a big deal. They had their license suspended for a bit and rode with friends for a few months, but it was nothing serious.
He said he would be fine, and he was — but the two girls in the car he crashed into were not.
Meagan Napier and Lisa Dickson, both 20, were on their way home from baby sitting at 2:30 in the morning. Both girls died during that crash, and Smallridge was sentenced to 22 years in prison — 11 years for each girl he killed.
Renee Napier, the mother of one of the girls, felt like part of her had been torn out when she got the news: “It was absolutely the most devastating moment of my life.”
“I didn’t know how I could even breathe without one of my children,” she said. She felt the long sentence he would serve was justified.
He was sobbing in the courtroom as he said, “I’ve caused so much pain. There’s nothing I can do.”
But he seemed defensive still, and Napier was not ready to forgive him.
“I could hate him forever and the world would tell me I had a right to do that,” Napier said.
“But it’s not going to do me any good, and it’s not going to do him any good, and I would grow old and bitter and angry and hateful,” Napier said.
She didn’t want to do that; she wanted to heal. Not long after Smallridge went to prison, he wrote the two families letters of apology. Napier wrote back with another letter — saying she had forgiven him, even though she was still working on that.
“In my opinion, forgiveness is the only way to heal,” Napier said.
Smallridge didn’t realize how much he needed this until he read the letter. “It was like a burden, it was a weight off my chest. I no longer had to hide behind this facade.
“As I got to know him [Smallridge] and got to know his family, I realized that he was a really good person, he just made a really bad choice,” Napier said. “Me hating Eric would not bring the two girls back.”
And Napier had done more than just writing Smallridge a letter.
Two years after he was sent to prison, she approached the judge who had sentenced him as well, asking that his sentence be reduced in half. Because this case was so personal for Napier, the judge granted it.
He apologized several times to the families after the fact, and, together with Napier, was determined to atone for what he had done.
“I really didn’t think I deserved forgiveness, but it was such a blessing,” Smallridge said.
After Megan’s death, Napier created the Meagan Napier Foundation to create awareness so her story could be used for good. Together, Napier and Smallridge have given talks at high schools in hopes of helping students understand that their choices matter.
Driving while intoxicated is not trivial. Both of them have lived through the consequences firsthand, and hope the pain can be used for something good.
Over 10,000 people die every year in accidents caused by drunk driving in the United States, accounting for a third of all traffic related deaths.