Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Anguish, tears, shattered lives

Families of three crash victims confront drunk driver in court

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The tears began flowing early. And they did not stop while three very private families offered a public glimpse of the devastating pain they've been forced to endure.

It was Clarke Harding's fault. He's the drunk driver responsible for the tidal wave of emotion in a Winnipeg courtroom Tuesday.

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There were loved ones of Paul Kler, the 64-year-old grandfather who had kissed his wife goodbye, headed out the door for work -- never to return home.

And there were the grieving relatives of Ellory Kirkwood, 20, and Michelle Hastings, 21, two carefree women who got into a car with a friend who was supposed to get them home safely, but killed them instead.

So much loss. So much anguish. And it was so senseless.

"I still wish every day I could trade places with them," said Harding, 32, as he briefly addressed the families of his victims in court.

He was the only survivor of the January 2012 head-on crash in Sanford, southwest of Winnipeg.

"I don't feel lucky that I lived," said Harding, who has been undergoing therapy for survivor guilt.

'I wish I could take it all back. I know I don't deserve your forgiveness. I just want you to know that I'm sorry' -- Clarke Harding in court Tuesday

"I wish I could take it all back. I know I don't deserve your forgiveness. I just want you to know that I'm sorry."

Harding pleaded guilty to three counts of impaired driving causing death.

He had a blood-alcohol reading between .095 and .114. The legal limit for driving is .08.

The Crown urged the judge to impose a six-year prison sentence to send a strong message to drivers, especially since impaired driving remains a major killer in Manitoba.

"No doubt Mr. Harding feels terrible, is genuinely remorseful, but the point is, other people need to be deterred from making that similar decision," said Crown attorney Chris Vanderhooft.

Defence lawyer Sarah Inness asked for a three-year penalty for Harding, saying the otherwise law-abiding citizen made a tragic error in judgment that will haunt him for life.

"He is not an intentional killer. He thought he would be OK (to drive)," said Inness. "He's a loving, kind, caring person."

Provincial court Judge Tracey Lord reserved her decision until Nov. 4.

Harding was driving a Chrysler Sebring when he crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and struck a Nissan pickup truck being driven by Kler on Highway 3.

Kler was killed instantly.

"Our world was shattered that day," Kler's widow, Darlene Martens, told court in her victim impact statement. "Our loss has been incredibly difficult and I would not want to wish it on anyone."

She described being haunted by images of what her husband's final moments were like.

"I will never forget that terrible morning. I relive it daily along with: What were my husband's last thoughts?

"And what he must have felt seeing your car heading straight for him?" she said.

The two women, passengers in Harding's car, died in hospital.

Kirkwood, Hastings and Harding were friends. They'd spent the evening out at a bar.

Harding was the designated driver. Although he drank some alcohol, Harding believed it wouldn't affect him.

"My heart aches. My soul aches. My whole being aches," Kirkwood's mother, Vivien Watson, told court. "I miss her every second of every hour, of every day."

Melville Kirkwood said his dream of one day walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding has been crushed.

"We now can only imagine and her future dreams of travel and her own family and children," he wrote.

"We do get some fleeting comfort knowing a donation of her organs live on through a heart-wrenching choice to donate them in our darkest hours."

Kler's granddaughter, Abby Martens, told court Tuesday she can't help but wonder how life would be different if "he had just left home one minute later."

"Would he still be here?" she asked. "His life was never supposed to end the way it did, or when it did."

Kler's daughter, Julie Martens, urged Harding to ensure his deadly mistake becomes a teaching tool.

"Take ownership of what has happened and create a positive. Own what you've done and tell people your story, teach people by your mistake," she said. "Teach our young about the devastation a bad, irresponsible choice can cause."

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2013 A3

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