Elena Duarte used to run three miles a day. She was finishing her first year at Stanford Law School and was looking forward to a high-paying internship.
Then, in a split-second last May, her life was shattered.
A 19-year-old driver, crazed by a dose of LSD, hurtled into a Manhattan Beach intersection where Duarte sat on a bench. Smashing into a car driven by a nine-months-pregnant woman, the teen-age driver’s car continued on, ramming the second car into the bench. The impact killed the pregnant woman, Laura Obele, and her fetus.
Duarte was luckier. But as she tried to leap clear, the mangled metal of one of the cars caught her left leg against the bench, opening a two-foot gash and crippling her.
Media coverage after the accident has focused on the tragedy of Obele’s death. Outside the public eye, Duarte has carried on her own personal struggle.
Last month, as Obele’s widower and relatives urged a judge to sentence the teen-age driver to the highest possible prison term, Duarte stayed home and concentrated on a milestone of her own: taking her first steps since the accident.
“I’m in constant pain,” Duarte said in a recent telephone interview from her Palo Alto home. “But I’m so used to it that just being able to stand up and walk on two legs is just amazing.”
During her first interview since the accident, Duarte said she has returned to law school and has tried to remain upbeat about her future.
But, after four surgeries and with a fifth scheduled in January, her doctors warn that her leg will never be the same.
“I won’t be able to ski or run or play volleyball or do anything that involves side-to-side movement,” she said. “I used to run three miles a day.”
Even if she learns to walk without a limp, she has been told to expect an early onset of severe arthritis.
“Any time I get really down about all this, all I have to do is look at it and think: ‘My God. If (the car) had hit any higher, it would have cut me in half,’ ” Duarte said. “I guess from that point of view, I was lucky. I’m really trying to remain positive about this.”
Duarte, who expects her medical bills to exceed $300,000, has sued the city of Manhattan Beach--alleging that police failed to turn their sirens on during their high-speed pursuit of the driver--and Heather Tolles, the car’s driver.
Rather than ordering Tolles to spend her seven-year prison sentence in the California Youth Authority, Duarte said, Torrance Superior Court Judge William Hollingsworth should have ordered her to serve her time working in an emergency room.
“It’s not that I don’t want her punished,” Duarte said. “I’m more a fan of letting the punishment reflect the injury. . . . She would do a lot more good for society in the long run if she had to spend a year or two knee-deep in blood.”
The daughter of a San Jose criminal defense attorney, Duarte said she has always been “a knee-jerk liberal when it comes to prison terms.”
“I have to think of it in society’s terms. Do I, as a taxpayer, want to pay $40,000 a year to have her locked up? Or would I rather put her out in the community doing service work and attach her wages for 10 years?” she said.
“It’s been hard to stick with that (philosophy) after all that’s happened to me . . . but I realize that if you’re going to shake these people up, the way to do it is not to put them behind bars but to expose them to what they’ve done.”