11/14/05 — Widow fights for rights for victims and families

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Widow fights for rights for victims and families

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on November 14, 2005 1:48 PM

A man can abuse an animal and get a longer sentence and a larger fine than a driver who plows head-on into another motorist and takes his life.

That has been the harsh reality for Debbie Kimbrell of Wayne County since her husband, Don, died just that way, more than three years ago.

She says she, her three sons and friends are still trying to cope with the frustration and anger with a system that did not seem to work for the victim or the family he left behind. And she wants to make sure other families do not suffer from the same heartache -- alone.

Mrs. Kimbrell's husband, Charles Donald "Don" Kimbrell, was killed March 2, 2002, on N.C. 210 in the Cumberland County town of Spring Lake while he was making deliveries for the family's business, which is located on Wayne Memorial Drive.

Mrs. Kimbrell said the other driver, then 19, came across five lanes of traffic in a compact car and collided with Kimbrell's van at 9:30 a.m. Both drivers had to be cut out. The teen survived after a stay in intensive care. Kimbrell, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, died within minutes at Womack Army Hospital in Fort Bragg.

That was just the start of the Kimbrell family's frustration with law enforcement and the court system.

The hospital did not notify the family until two hours later about the collision.

"I found out two or three days later that he had been dead for four hours," Mrs. Kimbrell said. "I find it hard to believe that they forgot to notify me."

Not until Mrs. Kimbrell, now 46, arrived at the hospital with her son, Chris, was she told her husband had died.

The teen driver, Charles Lee Hall Jr., who lived in Kenansville but had a Fayetteville address on his license, was not charged at the scene or tested for alcohol or drug impairment, Mrs. Kimbrell said. A family friend, Tracy Burns-Beirise, who followed the Kimbrells to the hospital, said a Spring Lake police officer had said Hall had suffered enough because of his injuries.

At that point, Mrs. Kimbrell hired a lawyer and charged the teen with misdemeanor death by vehicle and reckless driving. Later, she found out that all she had to do was to go to the magistrate's office in Fayetteville and take out a warrant, but she said neither Spring Lake police nor a district attorney had told her that information.

Hall was convicted in District Court, and was sentenced 45 days in jail. The term was suspended on condition that he complete five years of supervised probation, perform 200 hours of community service and pay a $200 fine and the court costs. In addition, he was ordered not to drive during his probation.

But last November, Hall was stopped on 11th Street in Goldsboro and charged with driving while his license was revoked. He got a 45-day suspended term and a $200 fine in District Court and was sentenced to two days in jail for violating terms of his probation from the fatal crash.

"I don't feel like any justice has been served," Mrs. Kimbrell said. "You get fined more when you hurt an animal than you do for killing someone. He gets to see his mom and dad, but my sons won't see their dad, and he won't see them graduate from school and have kids.

"Martha Stewart spent five months in jail for lying. This kid kills someone and is sentenced to five years' probation, and when he breaks probation, he spends two nights in jail."

She says District Court should be called "let's-make-a-deal" court because of plea bargains between the state and defense.

Kimbrell, then 49, was buried not in a military uniform, but in his favorite stretch jeans and black T-shirt, on the couple's 20th wedding anniversary.

And that is how he would have wanted it, Ms. Burns-Beirise said.

He was "an imp. He'd pull a stunt and then laugh the hardest," she said.

"His eyes just danced," Mrs. Kimbrell said. "We'll never know what we lost."

Mourners came from as far as Arizona and California for the funeral. Condolence calls came from Germany and Korea.

How people reached out after the tragedy, Mrs. Kimbrell said, was "truly wonderful."

Kimbrell, an Alabama native, settled in Wayne County after retiring. He had driven an hour and a half on that fateful day to make 10 stops in another hour and a half for Associated Parcel Service. The trip home would have taken another 90 minutes.

When she was asked about filing a wrongful-death civil lawsuit, Mrs. Kimbrell said even if she won, she would not get anything because the offender had no property. By now the three-year statute of limitations has run out.

Almost as a last resort, Mrs. Kimbrell contacted the Governor's Office. She found out that there was a victim's assistance program, but no one in Cumberland County had told her about it. She also spoke before a legislative committee, urging lawmakers to pass a new law to help victims.

She said she asked "the committee to make changes in the law so that a defendant's ability to pay is not a factor in setting a restitution amount in order to hold offenders accountable for the damage they cause." She was confident the bill would pass.

"I want people to know that the victims' assistance program is there to help in a tragedy," Mrs. Kimbrell said. "But it will never take the pain away. ...Just because a law is broken and a person loses a life, if you don't know the right avenues to go, many mistakes are made and more heartaches are put on the victim's family."

All law-enforcement agencies, she said, should give the victims of crimes and traffic collisions information about the victims' assistance program.

"It shouldn't be left up to the hospital to contact relatives," she said.

The outcome has left Mrs. Kimbrell frustrated.

"I've done everything I can do," she said. "I can't make it better for my children. The law and the courts were not on our side."

Then she said her husband had spent 22 years serving his country honorably, but "the country did not serve him."

The tragedy occurred only weeks after the Kimbrell's home on Hunters Creek Drive had burned down and the family had moved into a cramped apartment to await the construction of a new home next to the family business.

"Life was normal the night before," she said. "We were so caught up in our day-to-day living that we never had a chance to say good-bye."