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'He Didn’t Mean to Do It’

Story by - Michelle Dismute

For years, Michelle was furious at the drunk driver responsible for the crash that killed her son Nick. Now, she wants to keep him out of prison. 07/22/23

Grace: an act extending clemency to an offender before the law.

Forgiveness: an intentional decision to let go of resentment and anger.

Bruce Tolliver was intoxicated when he crashed his Hyundai Sonata five years earlier. Nick, a passenger that night, was ejected from the vehicle and died. He was just 15 years old.

Michelle sat in the courtroom stewing in anger. Through hours of delays, she eyed a young man across the room who was once her son’s best friend.

Bruce was facing seven years behind bars for robbing Michelle's son of his life. "I did not think it was long enough, he needed to have more time."

Michelle was playing games on her phone waiting for the proceeding to begin when suddenly she heard Nick's voice: "Mom, you can stop this. Don't send him nowhere."

“I got goosebumps, it was like he was standing over my shoulder.”

After Bruce pleaded guilty to causing a DWI death and another charge, Michelle asked Circuit Judge Katherine Fowler if she could speak. "I don't want him to go to prison," "I changed my mind. Please don't send him to prison."

'Someone Died'

On a Saturday night in September Nick spent the night at a friend's house. The following morning at 8:30 a.m. Michelle got a phone call. It was another mom. "She said there was a car accident, and someone died." Michelle raced to the scene of the accident. When she arrived, "The cop said, 'You need to go to the morgue.”

There she was told by the medical examiner that she couldn't see and hold her son one last time because his body was so mangled. Instead, the medical examiner showed her a photo. "I flipped out."

'He Forgave Me for Everything'

Life was difficult even before Michelle's son died. Addicted to cocaine and heroin as a teenager, she began a 10-year sentence in state prison — for robbery, home invasion and assault — when Nick was just a toddler.

Raised by Michelle's mother and sister during her incarceration, Nick grew up making monthly visits to see his mom. He was 12 when she was released in 2016.

"He said he forgave me for everything, but I had to promise him two things: stay clean and never leave him again."

'He's Suffering' The young man Michelle saw in the courtroom that afternoon as she stewed with anger, was not her son's best friend that she remembered.

"I'm looking over at Bruce. I'm thinking this isn't even the same kid. He looks so different, he's so skinny. He looks so sad. He looks depressed."

After asking the judge to keep Bruce, now 25, out of prison, the pair received the court's permission to communicate.

"I'm sorry," he told her, I've been wanting to talk to you for the last few years, but the lawyers told me no.' " Since then, their healing and connection has grown.

Michelle messages and calls. She offered to get Bruce Ubers and Lyfts — to his job, to classes at the Restorative Justice Center — but he always turns her down, walking or biking instead.

"Every time I see him, I cry, he's suffering more than what I thought he would. He didn't mean to do it."

"And he was like, there's nothing to enjoy anymore. My best friends are gone."

At the time of the crash, Nick was not wearing a seatbelt. He was thrown from the car and pronounced dead at the scene. The two other passengers — also not wearing seatbelts and thrown from the vehicle — survived.

Bruce had a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit and was going 30 miles per hour over the speed limit, according to court documents.

“I wish things were different,” Bruce said quietly, in an interview. He continues to feel remorse.

'One of the Most Beautiful Things' After he was arrested and unable to make bail, Bruce spent a year-and-a-half behind bars before his release in October 2020 — with conditions, including wearing a GPS monitor. Since then, he's graduated from a job-training program and found a good position with a moving company.

Bruce also received tremendous help from the Freedom Community Center, a restorative justice program that helps participants avoid prison.

"It really took a long time for him to feel worthy," says Ayumahani "Yaya" Sigu, who works closely with Bruce at the center, "but he's feeling that more and more." Yaya was in the courtroom for his sentencing hearing and would soon be in tears.

Michelle had asked Bruce to sit next to her. You are not going to prison, she told him.

When his case was called, Judge Fowler asked the duo to come before her.

Michelle put her arm around Tolliver, and they walked together towards the judge’s bench.

She asked Fowler not to send Bruce to prison, and said she forgives him. "He just collapsed into my arms.”

He said, 'I thought I would never ever hear you say them words.' "

"This is one of the most beautiful things I've seen in this court," Judge Fowler said.

Michelle's forgiveness "is more than I was expecting," Bruce says "and I don't fully feel I deserve it."

'She's Forgiven Me' His sentencing, thanks in large part to Michelle's plea for mercy, was postponed.

If Bruce completes the restorative justice program, he could be sentenced to probation.

Michelle will join Bruce in joint therapy through the Freedom Community Center.

She has offered him a home with her, her husband and their 5-year-old daughter if he decides he doesn't want to live with his father.

Michelle has just one condition: she wants Bruce to write Nick a letter and read it to her. "I really want to know where his head's at," she explains.

She hopes Bruce will eventually forgive himself. He says he's on his way.

"It does feel better to know she's forgiven me, and she was able to," Bruce says. "In a way it feels like it gives me permission to forgive myself."

Editor’s note: Michelle has given Our High Places permission to share her story.

To read the full unedited news story by The Messengerclick here

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