What do you think of when former First Ladies come to mind? Prim and proper, altruistic, party givers, hostesses with the mostessses, controversial, political pariahs? All of these and more could apply depending upon which First Lady about whom we are speaking. However, the term “criminal” certainly isn’t the adjective that would be on my list.
So, who is the criminal who happens to be a former First Lady? I am referring to the well liked and admired Laura Bush.
Seventeen year old Laura Welch killed a male friend who was driving another car on the night of November 6, 1963. This fact had been virtually kept under wraps for years. The issue reared its ugly head when her husband, George Bush, was running for president and then told for the very first time with the publication of Laura’s Book, “Spoken from the Heart.”
Certain crimes are considered crimes of passion, others are premeditated and some are accidents. In this case, if we are using our moral compass, religious training or from the point of view from the victim’s family, indeed it was criminal. Legally, there are felonies and misdemeanors.
State legislatures and Congress define what constitutes a felony and a misdemeanor, crimes that fit into each category may differ somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Both felonies and misdemeanors can be committed against people, property, or the state.
Felonies tend to involve prison sentences of at least a year, fines, or a combination of both. Misdemeanors involve prison sentences of less than a year, smaller fines, or a combination of both. Misdemeanors frequently result in alternative sentencing, such as community service or rehabilitation programs.
As an example, in my home State of Connecticut, it appears that the applicable Statutes split hairs and are confusing, even with an attorney’s opinion.
Negligent Homicide with a Motor Vehicle § 14-222a. This offense imposes punishment on any person who, in consequence of the negligent operation of a motor vehicle, causes the death of another person. The state must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Death occurred;
- That the defendant operated a motor vehicle in a negligent manner,
- That the defendant’s negligent operation of the motor vehicle caused the death- was the proximate cause.
Definition – Proximate cause incorporates the principle that an accused may be charged with a criminal offense even though (his/her) acts were not the immediate cause of the (death /injuries).
Penalties – Maximum fine of $1,000 imprisonment of six months or both. http://www.ctcriminallawattorney.com
Misconduct with a Motor Vehicle § 53a-57. This statute appears to be very similar except that criminal negligence is defined as when the offender – fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk, that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The failure to perceive the risk must be a gross deviation from the standard of a reasonable person.
Penalties: Class D Felony Punishable by 1 to 5 years in prison. http://www.ctcriminallawattorney.com
Other CT Statues involve Manslaughter in the 2nd Degree , A Class C Felony is applied when intoxicating liquor of a drug is involved or… Evasion of Responsibility with a Motor Vehicle such as Racing. Neither of these would apply to Laura Bush.
The Story of the Crime:
Laura Welch (Bush) was driving her Chevrolet sedan with friend and passenger Judy Dykes on her way to a drive in movie. She failed to stop at a stop sign at an intersection in the middle of nowhere. However, there are differing interpretations of the environment.
- It was a clear night occurring at roughly eight pm;
- The road was dry;
- Laura admitted that she was busy chatting with her friend, perhaps not with eyes on the road (Called distracted driving today?)
- The view of the stop sign was unobstructed,
- Laura stated:” I knew in my mind that somewhere ahead was a right turn for Big Spring Street, where the drive-in theater was, because the loop almost dead-ended at Big Spring. I knew there was a turn, but where that turn was seemed very far away… “Beyond the turn the asphalt stopped, and there was nothing more than a trail of unpaved dirt and dust.
- Did Laura fail to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk?”
- The posted speed limit was 55 MPH and she subjectively” I was going along, a little below the speed limit”
- “Suddenly, off in the middle of a field, I glimpsed a stop sign with the corner beam of my headlights. At that moment, I heard Judy’s voice: “There’s a stop sign.” And I just couldn’t stop.”… All I heard was the horrible sound of metal colliding, the catastrophic boom that occurs when two hard pieces of steel make contact.
- Positioning – The two cars traveling in the dark at right angles to each other, each going approximately 50 mph
- Some accounts say Laura admitted that her sight was not optimal;
- Another account has a neighbor boy calling her driving wild and “two wheeling”
- She claimed the stop sign “was too small” (and has since been enlarged.)
- Let’s not forget this was a 17 year old with a brain that was not yet mature enough to make challenging decisions, let alone life and death decisions.
- Michael Douglas, the victim, and was Laura’s good friend throughout high school. While he drove, he had no stop sign facing him, perhaps would have had no reason to slow his vehicle even if he had seen another car approaching the intersection. It can be assumed that he would have traveling at least 50 mph as well.
- Mike’s Car – It was a small car, a Corvair Monza, Detroit’s version of a compact, economy car designed to compete with the Volkswagen Beetle. It was sporty and sleek and supposedly unsafe according to Ralph Nader.
- The Aftermath- The impact of the collision hurled Douglas’ car some 50 feet off the road, instantly killing him. Laura and her passenger, schoolmate Judy Dykes, were both treated at the local hospital for their own bruises. It was there she learned that Douglas had died of a broken neck.
The Welches were described as partying people and not religious. Laura’s personality was “average and someone who liked to party as friends described her.” However, after the crash, she stayed in the house for months. Apparently, She never spoke of it again, for years, nor was she ever encouraged to seek or receive therapy. The Welches did not attend Mike Douglas’ funeral. Nor did Laura Welch reach out to the family. the two families severed all ties after Mike was killed.
The Police Report
The police report indicates no charges were filed. That section of the report was left blank. Although previous news accounts have reported Mr. Douglas was thrown from the car and broke his neck, those details were also not in the report. Reportedly, the written number as to the speed traveled by Laura was illegible. There was also no formal investigation done. Was there a cover up? Maybe, or it may have been just plain incompetence on the part of the police in a situation with limited knowledge and no resources.
Why was Laura not charged with anything?
Let’s face it, this was rural Texas in 1963. According to Marty Boisvert, former law enforcement inspector, Private Detective and currently, Senior Accident Reconstructionist from Crash Teams in Swansea, Massachusetts, it is difficult to speculate. Tragically, this is a far too common occurrence. In the State of Massachusetts, if no intent is found, such incidents are misdemeanors. If there are aggravating factors, offenders may receive jail time for up to 2.5 years. At most in the Texas 1963 crash, the State police may have been called, interviews and few photos taken. Today, with a wealth of technology including animation, special mapping techniques and a standard protocol for re-construction it is a whole different story. If you would like to know more about this fascinating and difficult profession, a previous podcast on the subject is featured on Shattered Lives Radio.
The Saddest Part of the Aftermath
These thoughts come to mind:
- The loss of life of a promising young man and athlete;
- The fact that a fatal mistake can plague a person and irrevocably change their life and many others lives like the domino effect;
- The fact that Laura was whisked away to the ER ,and prevented knowing the outcome, from saying goodbye to her friend in any manner, nor was she allowed or capable of reaching out to his family
- The fact that no one was astute enough to see that Laura needed therapy for her depression, grief, loss and inability to cope
- The fact that a smart woman held on to her pain and never let it out, never dealt with it for years
- If Laura would have felt comfortable admitting this tragedy, she could have been a national advocate for causes surrounding this issue.