On a Tuesday afternoon in August 2009, 44-year-old Gregory Armwood didn't want to wait. Driving through Clarkston on East Ponce de Leon Avenue, Armwood steered his red Lincoln Navigator across the double yellow lines. He passed a stopped car and, in front of it, the cause of his delay: a MARTA bus that had just disgorged several passengers, including 6-year-old Suk Maya Mager.
Mager had been in the United States for all of two weeks. She'd spent most of her brief life in the Nepalese refugee camp where she was born. Her family had landed there after they were uprooted from their home in Bhutan in a round of "ethnic cleansing."
Like 20,000 refugees who preceded them, the Magers got help from the Atlanta branch of the International Rescue Committee. In August 2009, the family was just starting to embark on the gradual assimilation to American life by way of small-town Clarkston, home to a multicultural mix of people displaced by genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, war in Somalia and Sudan, human rights violations in Burma and Liberia, and political and religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, Iran and Afghanistan. As with the others, the Magers had almost zero understanding of their new home's language, its culture or its laws.
A Clarkston police officer parked on the side of the road saw what happened next. Over the course of the day, the officer had written a half-dozen tickets to motorists who'd illegally crossed the yellow line. Armwood was the seventh. The difference between him and the others was that he plowed into a young girl as she and her family tried to make their way across the road. Mager suffered severe head and internal injuries and was placed on life support. She died the following morning, on what would have been her first day at Indian Creek Elementary School.
Clarkston's police chief initially announced that Armwood would be charged with a felony. He wasn't. For the life he took, Armwood's punishment, handed down last week, was scarcely more severe than that of the six other motorists who crossed the double yellow lines before him. For killing Mager, Armwood will spend 30 days in jail.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Armwood had been cited for past traffic offenses, ranging from DUI to running stop signs and red lights to exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 mph. He also is a Desert Storm and Desert Shield Army vet.
Regardless of Armwood's service to his country, regardless of the six people who committed a similar offense in the hours before he did, regardless of the DeKalb County assistant solicitor general's assertion that this was a mere accident, and regardless of Judge Alvin T. Wong's statement that "a minor infraction can have dire consequences where somebody dies," there is nothing that justifies Armwood's paltry sentence.
Aside from giving Armwood the maximum yearlong sentence, there's little the judge could have done differently. The real travesty is that, for reasons unknown, Armwood was spared a felony charge.
Had Armwood been drunk or fleeing police at the time of the collision, or had he left the scene, he automatically would have been charged with a felony. He also would have faced a felony if he illegally passed a school bus instead of a MARTA bus.
There's only one other underlying factor that would have resulted in a felony for Armwood. If, at the time he ran his Navigator into Mager, he had been driving "recklessly," that would have been enough. Under the law, "reckless driving" means simply that the driver behaved with "reckless disregard for the safety of persons or property."
Still, there's one more factor that might have swayed Armwood's fate. Perhaps the threshold for "reckless" would have been met if the driver of the Navigator had been a newly arrived immigrant — and the victim the child of a war veteran.