Web campaign targets parole bid

07:25 AM CDT on Friday, August 19, 2005

By DAVE MICHAELS / The Dallas Morning News


AUSTIN The suffering of Rickey Carter's victims did not end with his conviction. And his infamy continues even after his banishment to prison.

Mr. Carter, who killed four girls while driving drunk in Parker County in 1998, is back in the public domain. A new Web site urges the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to deny Mr. Carter's upcoming parole request apparently one of the first Internet campaigns to focus on a particular offender.

Created by a Republican activist from Weatherford with the support of the victims' families, the site features a haunting picture of a frowning Mr. Carter screened over the image of the crumpled car driven by one of the girls. The home page at www.keeprickycarterinjail.com reads: "A Deadly Drunk Driver May Be Paroled From Jail If We Don't Act Now!"

DMN file
Rickey Carter

The site is an approach to increasing public awareness about a parole case, which in Texas involves a secretive process in which board members do not even meet to cast their votes. Janelle Shepard, the Web site's creator, is asking visitors to write letters to the parole board to protest Mr. Carter's application for parole.

"It has been almost therapeutic for everyone," said Ms. Shepard, a former chairwoman of the Parker County GOP who also is an emergency-room nurse. "It's a story of sadness but also one we want to talk about."

Liz Osina, the mother of one of the victims, said Ms. Shepard's help is a blessing. Horrified by a letter that told her Mr. Carter could be released, Ms. Osina did not know how to warn people or get their help, she said.

So Ms. Osina wrote an e-mail to some friends, asking that they forward it. Within a day, Ms. Shepard had received it and offered to put together a Web site.

"It's growing every day, and the letters that are being posted on the Web site are so kind and reassuring," said Ms. Osina, whose 17-year-old daughter, Lacey, was killed.

In 2000, Mr. Carter was sentenced to 20 years in prison for intoxication manslaughter. His blood-alcohol level was 0.16 twice the legal limit in Texas, 0.08 when he slammed into a car driven by Staci Lee, 16. Also killed were Lacey, Mandi McWhorter, 15, and Whitney Welch, 16. All four were high school cheerleaders in the tiny town of Brock.

Mr. Carter has spent almost five years in prison. He was first eligible for parole three years ago, but that request was denied. The parole board probably will vote on his case in November, said Mike Viesca, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.


'A tragedy for him, too'


Jerry Loftin, the attorney who represented Mr. Carter at trial, said he does not oppose the idea of the Web site. But he suggested that an effort to demonize Mr. Carter was unfair.

Clockwise from top left: Mandi McWhorter, Staci Lee, Lacey Osina and Whitney Welch.

Mr. Carter did not have any previous drunken driving convictions and was admired in his community, Mr. Loftin said.

"As a practical matter, it has been a tragedy for him, too, and they don't see that," the lawyer said. "I understand their side of it. There is nothing you can say that rationalizes the loss of children."

Like many other small-town residents of Parker County, Ms. Shepard said, she felt like she lived through the 1998 tragedy even though she didn't personally know the families.

Through her political work, she learned how Web sites could allow people to get out their message and press their agenda.

The site has published nearly 30 letters to the parole board or other criminal justice officials. Ms. Shepard said that Web surfers from as far away as Idaho and New York have visited the site.

"The power of the Internet is just amazing," Ms. Shepard said. "This was a public trial and a very high-profile case, so Mr. Carter certainly cannot say he has not been in the media spotlight before."

Victim advocates have harnessed the Internet's power for years. Many Web sites memorialize the victims of drunken drivers, and survivors share their stories of recovery.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving sponsors a live chat on its Web page every Monday. Experts such as doctors answer questions from victims.

"The Internet really has done a lot to help individuals get through the grieving process," said Susan Bragg, the director of victim services for MADD's North Texas office.

Some Webmasters, including Jennie Murphy-McIntosh of Irving, post their letters to authorities opposing parole for their assailants.

She said Web sites can help victims cope with the recovery process and the justice system, including the "never-ending" parole process. Some offenders, including the driver who badly injured Ms. Murphy-McIntosh, come up for review every year. Victims receive a notice six months before the hearing.

"As soon as you get one done, it's back within six months," Ms. Murphy-McIntosh said.

MADD supports survivors and families during that process. The group plans to oppose Mr. Carter's parole, Ms. Bragg said.


Slim odds


Mr. Carter probably has little chance at freedom, said Ms. Bragg and David O'Neal, a Huntsville lawyer who often represents prisoners asking for parole.

But Ms. Osina and Lezlie Michael, Mandi McWhorter's mother, know they must always deal with the possibility.

"We were told from the very beginning that he would probably only serve five years of the 20-year sentence," Ms. Michael said.

Even if Mr. Carter is not granted parole this time, Ms. Shepard intends to maintain her campaign. A friend who hosts the site was happy to donate the space, she said.

"He said, 'You can leave it up forever.' "

E-mail dmichaels@dallasnews.com