Is it possible to feel sorry for Jaime Williams, the drunk driver whose car fatally struck 16-year-old Cole Coppola as he pedaled his bicycle near the crest of the 17th Street Bridge and knocked his lifeless body into the dark waters of the Indian River Lagoon in the wee hours of Sept. 27, 2014?
Before you respond, you need to consider where she has spent the past five years.
After negotiating a plea deal that allowed her to avert the maximum penalty for DUI manslaughter and a misdemeanor marijuana-possession charge – up to 16 years in prison – Williams, then 23, was sentenced to seven years and required to serve a minimum of four.
Little did she, or any of us here, know that a house of horrors awaited her at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala.
For those who missed the headlines: A 34-page report released last December by the U.S. Department of Justice, which conducted a two-year investigation of inmate abuse at Lowell, detailed how corrections officers “raped, sodomized, beat and choked” inmates at Florida’s oldest and largest women’s prison.
The investigation, which began in April 2018, included the review of more than 100,000 pages of documents and interviews with dozens of inmates.
The report alleged that Lowell violated women’s Eighth Amendment rights by failing to protect them from the sexual abuse, which was not only tolerated but “normalized,” and other cruel and unusual punishments.
Investigators from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division also exposed the failure of the Florida Department of Corrections and the prison’s administrators to take timely action to address the nightmarish problems – which were as systemic as they were sickening – thus allowing the abuses to persist.
The DOJ report came five years after the Miami Herald published a series titled, “Beyond Punishment,” which documented how more than three dozen former and then-current inmates were forced to perform sexual acts with Lowell corrections officers who threatened them with solitary confinement or the loss of visitation privileges with their children.
Outrage spawned by the DOJ report prompted hard-hitting editorials – from the Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and other state newspapers – excoriating the Corrections Department and Lowell. Four female legislators called for the removal of the prison’s administrators.
The report, however, stopped short of holding anyone criminally liable and, according to the Corrections Department website, Stephen Rossiter was still serving as Lowell’s warden last weekend.
Williams, however, is no longer there.
Two weeks ago, she was transferred to the Suncoast Community Release Center in St. Petersburg, where she will be given the opportunity to work outside the facility, which requires that she wear an electronic monitoring device and maintain regular communication with the staff.
Was Williams among the abused inmates at Lowell? We’re not suggesting that, and she is not willing to talk about her stay at Lowell.
In fact, her Melbourne-based attorney, Alan Landman, wrote in an email to Vero Beach 32963 that neither his client nor her parents, who visit her regularly, wanted to discuss her incarceration.
“At the present time, Jaime’s parents do not believe it would be in her best interests to speak out publicly or communicate with you,” Landman wrote. “Possibly, their position may change once she is released.”
Williams, now 28, had her sentence reduced by one year – her reward for good behavior – and is scheduled to be released next November. But unless and until she’s ready to talk, there’s no way to know how she’ll respond to the fatal crash and her prison experience.
Mary Lou Ciambriello, Coppola’s 73-year-old grandmother, is hoping for the best.
“I don’t know her, and I never want to meet with her or speak to her, but I’ve often wanted to write her a letter,” Ciambriello said. “I don’t want her to waste her life. I hope her life has a purpose and that she uses this tragedy to do some good.”
Perhaps, Ciambriello added, Williams will join the effort to stop drunk driving by sharing her sad story with others who need to be reminded that “trouble often comes disguised as fun.”
Asked if she felt any sympathy for Williams, who was only 21 and employed at the Citrus Grillhouse when the crash occurred, Ciambriello replied, “Yes” – something she conceded she would not have said seven years ago.
But she also believes Williams deserved to go to prison.
“She needed to be held accountable for her crime, for what she did to Cole and all the suffering she has caused us,” said Ciambriello, who requested that we not contact other family members and disrupt the progress they’ve made in coping with such a loss.
Others, too, should be held accountable, she said.
Ciambriello said she’s still “really angry” with the friends and other local restaurant workers who interacted with Williams on that fateful night and did nothing to prevent her from driving drunk.
“To me, they’re just as culpable,” she said. “They knew she was drinking. They never should’ve allowed her to get behind the wheel of a car. They should’ve stopped her, even if they had to take her keys.”
Ciambriello, a local realtor, said she hasn’t driven across the 17th Street Bridge since her grandson’s death, but she thinks about him every day and remembers that fateful night “like it was yesterday.”
She took no pleasure, though, in learning that Williams spent the first five years of her sentence in a prison rife with violence and abuse.
“Did I want her to serve her sentence in a hell hole like that? Absolutely not, but we had no control over where they put her,” Ciambriello said, referring to her and other family members.
“I know our prison system has problems, but that kind of abuse shouldn’t be tolerated.”
So, what do you say now?
Is it possible for you to feel sorry for the drunk driver who ended the life of a teenage boy and was sent to prison for at least six years?
Let there be no doubt: What happened in the wee hours of Sept. 27, 2014, was a heartbreaking, devastating and entirely preventable accident caused by a young woman who made a conscious decision to drive home after having a few drinks after work.
It was a bad decision many of us have made during the foolish years of our youth – but somehow managed to escape unscathed.
She made a tragic and catastrophic mistake that likely will haunt her for the rest of her life.
She knows she killed a teenager.
She’ll never forget the five years she spent in a prison where brutalizing and sexually abusing inmates was the norm.
How can you not feel a bit sorry for her?