Man who killed Henry Dennis while driving drunk gets 90 days jail
by on Monday, August 5, 2013  (11 comments)

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Two years after Henry Dennis was killed by a drunk driver while riding bike on a country road, the man who killed him got 90 days in jail. This follows several recent stories in Wisconsin about light penalties, usually just fines, for drivers who have killed bicyclists.

Dennis was riding his bike, on the paved shoulder of a county highway off the traffic lane, with a flashing headlight and a flashing taillight. The driver admitted that he saw the flashing red taillight. The driver, tested 2 hours after the incident, was above the legal limit.

This one hits me a little closer than usual because I had met Dennis on a couple of occasions. In my first ever Milwaukee area road race, back in 1998, I finished a distant second to him at the Samson Stomp 10K. I talked with him after the race and he just seemed like a great guy to me. In 2005, he volunteered to join Team HillRunner.com for the Madison Jingle Bell Run where he and friend Nick Winkel performed a front running masterpiece to lead the team to victory. I didn't get to talk with him or Nick for long that day but they both were very gracious in just being willing to join the team and were very humble and gracious in the short talk I did have with them. They didn't need to be out there trying to run hard in the cold and on snow covered roads but they were because someone Dennis knew asked them to join the team representing a website they had probably never heard of run by a person Dennis probably never recalled meeting.

Something needs to be done. From what I hear, this isn't just a Wisconsin thing. This is the standard practice in many states. While laws state that pedestrians (including runners) and bicyclists have as much right to the road as motor vehicles, in practice it seems to be accepted that pedestrians and bicyclists are second class citizens. If a motor vehicle kills a pedestrian or bicyclist, it was an accident and the death is just an unfortunate consequence of our modern world.

I know I'm preaching to the choir but this is the wrong way to look at things. We have every right to be out there. We have the responsibility act in a safe manner but drivers of motor vehicles also have the responsibility to share the road and act in a safe manner around us, such as not driving out of the driving lane when they see a flashing light they should know indicates someone is there. In Wisconsin, we have a law that drivers are required to give a 3 foot clearance between their vehicles and pedestrians or bicyclists. This law and others like it are routinely ignored by law enforcement. For public safety, we need these laws enforced and we need people who kill pedestrians and bicyclists to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. 90 days is a disgrace. Cases where the killer gets off with nothing more than a fine are beyond disgraceful.

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11 comments
Charlene

This was a very unusual light sentence for this crime. From reading the article I would suspect that the drunk driver's family connections had a lot to do with this. Too bad the justice system is not a level playing field.

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Ryan

Actually, compared to other stories out of Wisconsin this year involving drivers killing bicyclists, this is a quite harsh sentence. Most have been fines, from memory I want to say usually $200-300.

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Charlene

But were those drivers drunk? That makes a huge difference.

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Ryan

Wisconsin is way too tolerant of drunk driving. That said, drunk or not, a driver who kills someone due to irresponsible behavior deserves more than a $235 fine for inattentive driving. As bad as drunk driving is, killing someone is far more serious in my opinion.

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Charlene

When I said that the sentence was light I meant for a drunk driving fatality case and not just a car vs bike incident. I googled a few sentences for other Wisconsin drunk driving fatalities and the first 3 I saw ranged from 5 years to 12 years. I admit it was not a very extensive search but it did conclude to me that a 90 day sentence was very light for an incident with an impaired driver.

As for car vs bike/ pedestrian accidents, each incident needs to be evaluated on its own as there can be many shades of gray as to who was at fault. Those that are most likely to be murder are also most likely to be hit and runs and not prosecuted at all. All of us has a scary brush with such a driver looking to play chicken.

One interesting note is that I once heard that a bicyclist without a helmet is much less likely to be killed than a rider in full kit as drivers give more clearance to the more novice appearing rider.

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Ryan

Tom Held does a great job keeping people updated on these incidents in Wisconsin. The first story that came to my mind, maybe because I know this area, is this, out of Sheboygan. Driver kills cyclist, gets cited for inattentive driving and that's it.

There are always two sides to a story. Unfortunately, when the cyclist dies, we often only hear one side of the story. There are cases when the cyclist/pedestrian could do better but there are cases where the driver is at fault and, when that is the case, the driver should get more than they are getting. Nothing but a fine for killing someone is an outrage. If the driver who killed the bicyclist could be cited for inattentive driving, how could the driver not be held responsible for the death of the cyclist? A $200-something fine for taking someone's life is a ridiculously light penalty. It seems like, any time a bicyclist or pedestrian is the victim, the attitude from even law enforcement is that it was an inevitable incident and we shouldn't hold the driver responsible. That's an attitude that needs to change.

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Charlene

The one hope in these cases is that a monetary settlement is awarded in civil court for wrongful death. Too bad this is far more likely to happen when the one at fault has deep pockets or adequate liability insurance.

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Charlene

....than if they are a low life with no job, assets, or insurance.

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Ryan

That's what I'm hoping. The families of the victims will take the drivers to court and take them for everything they are worth. It's not as much a deterrent as prison time plus a wrongful death suit but it seems only fair for the families to collect some form of compensation for losing a loved one and maybe a few large rulings would work as a deterrent of some sort.

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Andrew A.

A little over a year ago, my best buddy was killed by a motorist while cycling. He was cycling on the shoulder of a road when an oncoming motorist turned left. It was between 5 and 6 p.m. in late July, so essentially in full daylight. No evidence of alcohol or drug use by the driver, who was charged with careless driving -- claimed he did not see my buddy at all -- and got probation with some community service (25 hours, I think). And this all in a rather bike-friendly community. It still floors me that you can behave in a way with what is essentially a lethal weapon that takes someone's life and get little punishment at all. My buddy's family (parents) said that they really only wanted an admission of wrongdoing (the defendant took the DA's plea bargain) and would not push for jail time, they did not want to 'tear another family apart' over this. That seems a noble sentiment, yet how is the greater good of society (or at least the community in which I live) served if the harshest penalty for a crime resulting in death not pushed for? Sure, the driver has to live with what he did the rest of his days, but what is the message sent out to everyone else? I am sure I feel some bias because it struck so close to home, yet I also know that I have been in clear, distinct danger of being hit by cars plenty while cycling around the town where I live and doing so well within my legal right-of-way and a reasonable level of safety. I feel that culturally, in America, we have some odd and often nonsensical attitudes about cars and their use (driver's ed. and driver's license testing seem rather flimsy) and that not only colors public perception and response but also is long and tough in changing.

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Ryan

Andrew, I may have painted this as a Wisconsin issue but I do believe it is a national issue. I pay attention to the Wisconsin stories because that's where I am but I have seen enough stories such as yours to believe bicycle/pedestrian safety is a serious issue that is essentially ignored by public officials. I'm so sorry to hear about your friend. Losing one to such a tragedy has to be heartbreaking.

I have mixed feelings on incarceration in general but it's hard to believe that, when one takes another's life, 90 days or even nothing as is often the case is a punishment/deterrent that fits the crime. In the case of your friend, if the driver didn't see your friend in broad daylight, isn't that the driver's fault and doesn't that warrant some penalty beyond a minimal amount of community service?

We absolutely have some messed up views in this country on vehicles and their use. In some ways, it amazes me. In others, it's not surprising given our cultural views in general. I'm not sure how we change these views, which are at the root of this whole problem. If we don't change cultural views, we're not going to turn this around.

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