Suwannee Democrat

Local News

May 5, 2011

Mother and daughter's killer take the stage against drunk driving

Live Oak — Could you forgive the man who killed your child? What about give him a hug? Renee Napier, whose daughter was killed by drunk driver Eric Smallridge in 2002, did just that Wednesday in front of hundreds of shocked Suwannee High students when the convicted felon walked onto the auditorium stage in handcuffs. Her reason? To heal herself and to save lives.

"This is a story of forgiveness," Napier told students Wednesday morning.

Napier's daughter, Meagan, 20, and a friend, Lisa Dickson, 20 were in Lisa's four-door Mazda when they were hit by Smallridge's speeding jeep on Highway 98 in Gulfbreeze, Fla. The girls were killed on impact before the car crossed the median and slammed into a tree, two days before Mother's Day.

Napier said she wanted to have all of her children together on Mother's Day, and she did - though she never expected one of them would be in a coffin.

"The choices you make not only affect you, but others," she said. "I don't ever go to a city where someone hasn't died from driving under the influence."

A college senior and star athlete, Smallridge was sentenced to 22 years in prison. At the request of the Napier and Dickson families, a judge reduced Smallridge's sentence to 11 years in 2006. He’s set for release next year.

"In our world there is so much hatred and things going on. I want to promote love," Napier said. "Forgiveness is about healing. If you want to heal, you have to forgive. Anger and hate make you a miserable person."

There were months of despair after Meagan and Lisa's death when Napier said most days, she did not want to get out of bed. After Smallridge's sentencing, Napier said her heart was heavy and she did not feel peace.

"I realized there were no winners," she said.

It wasn't until she forgave him, personally and out in the open, that the healing began. Napier told students that she realizes the impact of her message would be more potent if Smallridge was present.

As shocked students gasped and the auditorium filled with, at first hesitant, applause, Smallridge walked onto the stage in a blue prison uniform and shackles. Despite the handcuffs, he held a microphone and warned students not to make the same mistake he did.

"I am an up close and personal view of what you can reduce yourself to with one bad decision," he said. "I thought I had a better chance of getting struck by lightening than hurting someone while driving under the influence."

On the night of the accident, Smallridge left a beachside bar to find that his jeep would not start.

"It was like an omen," he said.

Smallridge called a friend to jump off his vehicle. The friend asked him if he was okay to drive, and Smallridge insisted he was. "My pride got in the way," he told students. The same friend would later testify in court and tell the jury that he had grown up with Meagan and Lisa, and that they were like sisters to him.

"I thought the worst thing that would ever happen to me is I would get that DUI," he said. "That night I left the bar, I thought it would go down like every single other time. That's not how it went down."

"If your friend insists on driving under the influence, let the air out of their tires. Do what you got to do. Let them be angry with you," he added. "As you see, it's too late for me. It's too late for Meagan and Lisa."

But Smallridge said it's not too late for Suwannee High students who hear his story.

After the presentation, students surrounded Smallridge, many emotional and with stories of their own. Some students gathered outside the auditorium where the crushed Mazda that Meagan and Lisa were driving the night of the accident was on display: physical evidence of what drunk driving can do. Some students took photos, others touched the car or stood next to it, silent and somber.

Napier will later drive down the interstate in her SUV, the ravaged Mazda in tow behind her--on to another engagement where, perhaps, her message will prevent a similar tragedy.

"Meagan and Lisa were the kind of girls that they would've forgiven Eric Smallridge," she said.

Napier added: "I would be one arrogant mother if I didn't realize that could have been my son who made that choice any given night."

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