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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 6, 2011

Fatal accident’s damage reaches far past its victims

Sometimes an accident is just that — accidental, a matter of chance not intention. Wrongdoing isn’t always at the root of tragedy.

Three women died in a horrible way on Aug. 10 while their friends, helpless, watched. We have learned about the women killed in the accident, and written about them on our pages because they died in our midst, in Voorheesville. All three were active in their Catholic churches, and devoted to their families and communities. The worth of each life is immeasurable. It is tragic that their lives ended when they did and the way they did.

Members of the Empire State Capital Volkssporters, the women were gathered with other walkers in front of St. Matthew’s Church in Voorheesville while some members were using the church bathroom before setting out for their walk through the village.

As the walkers were gathering near St. Matthew’s, Luann Burgess, 55, who lives just a few suburban streets away from the church, was dropping off her foster child at a summer program. Driving home in her Toyota Highlander, Burgess veered off Mountainview Street, and into the three women — one was struck and thrown and the other two were dragged, police said — before crashing into the church’s brick bell tower. Burgess, who had a broken arm, told police that the flip-flop sandal she was wearing got stuck in the area of the gas and brake pedals.

A black box in the sports utility vehicle showed that the SUV gained seven miles per hour in the five seconds before hitting the women. The road has a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour and five seconds before the first impact, the box showed, Burgess was traveling at 39 miles per hour. At the point of impact, she was going 46 miles per hour, said Craig Apple, acting sheriff for Albany County, and then the car slowed to 25 miles per hour before a second impact, assumed to be the brick bell tower where the vehicle stopped.

There was no braking, Apple said. Referring to Burgess’s assertion that her sandal got stuck, he said, “It very well could have been.”

Police then awaited the return of a toxicology report before discussing with the district attorney whether or not to bring charges against Burgess. Last week, the long-awaited quantitative analysis of the chemicals in Burgess’s blood was completed, according to Apple, but he wasn’t yet able to decipher the figures. The analysis will show how much of each drug was in her system at the time of the accident.

Apple said he planned to meet with experts from the Albany County District Attorney’s Office to figure out what the results mean regarding Burgess’s ability to drive on the morning of Aug. 10. An initial toxicology report showed that Burgess had Wellbutrin, Xanax, and quetiapine in her system. The drugs were used to treat her Parkinson’s disease, Apple said.

Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder marked by early symptoms of shaking, rigidity, and difficulty moving. Most people are able to drive during the first stages of the disease if they are taking medications to control their symptoms, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.

The decision on whether or not to charge Burgess will be made collaboratively between the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office, Apple said — they will see where the law fits in to the accident.

“I know a lot of people want to see a charge, but the law’s the law,” Apple said.

Certainly, if the drugs in her system were over the legal limit, Burgess should be charged.

But, if not, Apple is right — the law is the law. Charging her then wouldn’t change the law. It would just waste the court’s time and make a mockery of justice. If the drugs in her system were under the legal limit, and the public is outraged that is allowed, then the response should be to put those energies into changing the law.

Setting out to punish someone if he or she hasn’t broken the law doesn’t serve justice.

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