Jennings gets prison time for fatal crash

Published 6:13 pm Monday, June 28, 2004

By By NORMA LERNER / Niles Daily Star
CASSOPOLIS -- Amidst tears, hugs and outbursts of crying, Delbert Jennings, 29, was led off to prison Friday morning following his sentencing in Circuit Court of three and one-half to 15 years for failing to stop at the scene of an accident resulting in death and a concurrent three and one-half to 15 years for involuntary manslaughter in the Sept. 6 death of 20-year-old Melissa Schrader of Granger, Ind.
The accident happened on Kline Road just across the Michigan border in Milton Township.
Jennings was crying as he told the Schrader family how sorry he was and that there is nothing he could say to change what happened.
Michael and Barbara Schrader told the court how much they miss their daughter. They said she wanted to get married and have a family. Mr. Schrader said she was too young to go. "It's sad and lonely. She was my daughter to be proud of. She wanted me to work on her car. I miss her more than anything. I can't express how I feel. She worked hard. At night she went to college to earn her degree. She will never come back," he said.
Mrs. Schrader said there is nothing no greater than the loss of a child. She referred to the loss of another child two years ago and how Melissa would visit her sister and grandfather at the cemetery. "She made her mother proud. My family has fallen apart. We can't seem to find the right explanation. I pray the rest of my children will never go through this. I want to cry out her name every night when I pass her bedroom. Every day gets harder . . . more of a struggle. She would have been 21 next month. I don't know the answer why this happened to Melissa. I now accept the reality of the tragedy at her grave."
Prosecutor Victor Fitz said this should never have happened. Because of defendant's attitude, Melissa Schrader was killed. "He (Jennings) drank, killed and left Sept. 3. He will have plans to make and things to do, but the victim will never have the opportunity. Those people will never have the opportunity to see her grow up and be married. This is a tragedy that could have been avoided. He didn't have to drink and drive. He hit a mailbox, drove reckless and hit a human being. He left. She was shattered and torn and left on the highway to die," he said in asking for justice.
Defense Attorney R. McKinley Elliott told Judge Michael E. Dodge that he has dealt with these cases before and probably worse cases. There are no words to grieve with the family. Parents should never have to bury a child. "Only God will help them." Elliott said if Jennings would have know what happened, he would have stopped. He was only a couple blocks from home. A polygraph test showed he didn't realize it, but it doesn't change the facts. He said in the way it happened does not help the family reach closure. "They traded pain for pain."
Elliott said he disagreed with the court's opinion. "There's no punishment to give us back our son or daughter or loved one." In not going over matters again in respect for the Schrader family, Elliott told Dodge. " We have to rest with your sense of justice. Your honor, I am confident what you will do is the right thing within the four corners of the law," he said.
Dodge said it was after 9 p.m. on Sept. 6 when 20-year-old Melissa Schrader was walking with her friend Amanda Dylewski.
She said a loud vehicle from behind kicked up some dirt. She turned to look at Schrader, and she was gone.
Dodge said that Jennings had been tail gaiting at a football game for seven to eight hours but did not attend the game. He consumed four to five beers, but a witness said he drank five to six beers. He was going home apparently before going out with friends to the Club Landing in South Bend, he said.
Dodge said he hit a mailbox at a 90-degree turn in Cherry Road before it turns to Kline and did not stop. After another turn in Cherry Road, he struck and killed Schrader. Dodge said the pre-sentence report says Jennings thought it was a deer, and he sustained property damage to the front of his vehicle. He said he denied any involvement to the investigating police officer but later acknowledged he struck something, thinking it was a deer.
Dodge showed a thick folder of letters received from both sides of the family. Favorable things were written about Jennings, he said, things that were out of character for him. He said the court can deviate from Jennings' guidelines of 36 to 71 months if it finds substantial reasons to do so, but it did not find any reason. He said involuntary manslaughter does not result from premeditated killing but results from gross negligence. He noted Jennings was driving too fast for conditions and was operating a cell phone. "You first hit a mailbox and then a human being. You should have stopped after striking Melissa Schrader if you thought it was a deer. You had a cell phone and should have reported it. It could have resulted in a second death," he said about missing Dylewski by inches.
Following the hearing, Fitz said it was a tragedy from all sides. "I thought it was fair and just."
Elliott disagreed but said he has been more concerned since the accident happened. He said when he makes a cell phone call, he pulls over. He said he hit a deer recently. "I grieve for Melissa Schrader's parents. They had to be going through a nightmare. I know hearts go out to the Jennings' family. It was a tragedy. I hope God will give them strength to bear this horrible loss."