Amy Freedheim is in a hurry. She needs to stop a dangerous driver from getting out of jail.
It’s Thursday morning and she’s in King County Superior Court in Seattle for the arraignment of a man charged with a hit and run death.
She convinces the judge to keep bail at $500,000 and is off again. The defendant will later plead guilty.
"If I had violated the law, she's the last person that I would ever want after me,” said one attorney.
When asked to assess her reputation, Freedheim said: “Fierce but fair.”
Freedheim has seen the carnage left behind by impaired drivers. The police photographs of the crashes are horrific. But they send Freedheim racing down the road to justice. To say she’s passionate about holding accountable the people who kill or maim while driving under the influence, is an understatement.
"Who doesn't know that when you drive impaired, who doesn't know that you can kill or seriously injure someone?” said Freedheim.
It's serious stuff, yet the door to her office is decorated with cartoons and drawings. There’s a picture of a street scene drawn by her son for a class project in elementary school. “If you look, there are bottles of alcohol out here, with people lying in the street,” Freedheim said. The caption reads: “Do not drive drunk. You will go to jail.”
There’s a drunken penguin with dilated eyes made out of construction paper. And there’s a photograph of a signboard reading: “Honk if you love Jesus, text while driving if you want to meet him.” Stopping distracted driving is another one of Freedheim’s passions.
Then we step inside and see Freedheim’s wall. “These are my victims,” she said, pointing to the dozens of photographs that cover nearly the entire wall.
Where we see a litany of loss, Freedheim sees her purpose.
"I see people looking out. They're so full of life; they have no idea what their future is going to hold. They’re all of us, this huge cross section of humanity and I know they’re all going to be killed in a completely preventable way,” she said snapping her fingers.
Thirteen years ago, Freedheim convinced her bosses in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office that DUI deaths and injuries should get the same level of attention as homicides and violent crimes. Prosecuting DUI cases requires special knowledge and training in physics, accident reconstruction, toxicology and medical issues, Freedheim said.
Freedheim became a one woman felony traffic unit managing over a hundred cases a year. She also spends time educating police officers on exactly what she needs to make a case stick.
"Welcome to my RJC cubicle," said Freedheim as we walked into her satellite office at the Regional Justice Center in Kent.
Federal Way DUI case
Freedheim was meeting with the Federal Way Police officer who investigated a deadly crash on June 7. Freedheim was facing a 2 pm deadline to file charges against the woman driver who was arrested at the scene. Michelle Dittamore was accused of taking her father’s car without permission and slamming head on into a vehicle driven by Jana Lynne Berry, 48, who was killed instantly.
According to police, Dittamore didn't remember that her 4-year-old son was in her car at the time of the crash.
Freedheim filed a Vehicle Homicide charge against Dittamore alleging that she was driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs when she caused the accident.
The case is the first to be prosecuted under a new law Freedheim helped write, which classifies DUI vehicular homicides the same as manslaughter and nearly triples prison time for those convicted. The law went into effect just hours before the crash Dittamore allegedly caused.
Freedheim believes that someone who kills another person while driving under the influence should be treated no differently than someone who commits manslaughter.
"You’re engaging in behavior that in and of itself is reckless and that's what manslaughter is. It's killing someone recklessly,” she said.
If convicted as charged, Dittamore could face nearly ten years in prison instead of three and a half years under the old law. Having a child in the vehicle during a DUI homicide adds a full year to the prison term. Dittamore pled not guilty to the charges.
Kirkland DUI case
Kelly Hudson of Kirkland is also being prosecuted under the new law. The mother of three is accused of crossing the center lane on Juanita drive on August 7th, and hitting a carful of elderly people coming back from a day of sightseeing in Seattle. The victims had to be cut out of their car. Two had multiple broken bones. 81-year-old Joyce Parsons died.
Another motorist had called 911 shortly before the crash, reporting that there was a car swerving all over the road. According to police, Hudson admitted consuming wine and taking a prescription drug used to treat depression. She is charged with one count of vehicular homicide and three counts of vehicular assault. At arraignment, Hudson told the judge she was “absolutely not guilty” of the charges.
Linda Holtorf is the oldest daughter of the woman who was killed. She said she talked to the survivors in the car.
“They said all of a sudden lights were just coming at them, in seconds, they didn't even have time to say oh no!” Holtorf said.
To Linda Holtorf and other family members, Freedheim is a lifeline to justice. They hope Joyce Parsons' will be the next photo to go up on the wall. Because it would mean that Parsons’ killer is locked up and no longer on the road.
"Mom would like it,” said Holtorf. "That it's just helping others, reminding Amy of other people,” she said.
It's a wall of pain and sadness that could be oppressive, unless you're Amy Freedheim.
"They're all dead now,” she said looking up at the wall of faces, “...but I see this as, they're all out there saying, ‘keep doing what you’re doing so the wall doesn't get bigger,’” said Freedheim.
Freedheim has prosecuted well over 1000 cases in her 13 years in the Felony Traffic Unit.