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Fatal crash driver makes memorial bench

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske dedicates the bench in the memory of Lisa Ann McNelly, killed in a 2010 crash caused by a teenage driver. Teske ordered the teen to build the bench in her honor as part of his sentence.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske dedicates the bench in the memory of Lisa Ann McNelly, killed in a 2010 crash caused by a teenage driver. Teske ordered the teen to build the bench in her honor as part of his sentence.

A two-car crash that killed a Jonesboro woman in 2010, forever changed the lives of her family, and that of the 16-year-old driver charged in her death.

The Clayton County Juvenile Court judge presiding over the vehicular homicide case weighed the options for punishment, and decided against locking up the teenager. Instead, with the blessing of victim Lisa McNelly's daughters, Judge Steven Teske ordered the teen to build a bench in the victim’s memory.

That bench was dedicated Friday in the common area of the Perry Learning Center in Jonesboro. A last-minute personal emergency kept the daughters from attending the ceremony, said Teske. The women plan to return to view the bench privately with the driver and his mother.

The afternoon ceremony was a quiet end to an emotional journey that started Feb. 27, 2010. The teenager, who had only a learner's permit, took his mother's Dodge Ram on a joyride. Traveling east on Ga. 54 about 12:40 a.m., the teen failed to yield the right of way during a left turn onto Tyler Terrace. He hit a Mercury Tracer in which McNelly, 42, was a passenger.

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Higher Living Christian Church Minister William Hill covers the hand of the teenage driver held responsible for the death of Lisa Ann McNelly as the two pray during Friday’s memorial bench dedication. Building the bench was part of the teen’s punishment.

Because of his age, Teske ordered that the teen's name be withheld from publication. The teen also had to perform 1,000 hours of community service. He is now a high school senior on track to graduate, with college plans.

Teske said he viewed the accident as a mistake without malicious intent on the part of the teenage driver.

"He was not a delinquent child," said Teske. "He made a poor decision, he made a mistake and is learning from it. I was saddened to see such a nice young man in this position."

Teske said this case was the first time he ordered the unorthodox punishment, with which he said McNelly's daughters agreed.

"I remember the day in court," he said. "The two daughters were there, they were in such pain, crying, they'd just lost their mother."

But Teske said he hopes the bench can play a role in coping with their loss.

"This is a place to which the daughters can occasionally come and sit on the bench and remember their momma," said Teske.

The teenager said the crash has proven to be a tough life-lesson.

"I think about it pretty much every day," he said. "It changed my whole outlook and decision-making in my life. I realized I don't know everything, and I need to listen to people with more wisdom than me."

The teen's mother said she was grateful for the compassion shown by McNelly's daughters and by Teske.

"We saw each other in court and the daughter was so gracious in her forgiveness, but we haven't had any real contact since then," she said. "It is an amazing thing the judge did, to recognize the special child my son is, and that he didn't want to pile one tragedy on another by putting him in the system."

Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox also attended the ceremony and urged the teenager to make the most of his second chance.

"You had a life-changing experience," said Maddox. "But this could have happened to any one of us, or our children. Young people don't have the advantage of all the experience we old people have, and don't realize the consequences of just one little action."

Susan Bass, the victim assistance program manager in the Clayton County District Attorney's Office, spoke on behalf of McNelly's daughters.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family," said Bass. "We appreciate seeing how the Juvenile Court works with juveniles. This can't bring their mom back, but this brings them solace. And they bear no ill will to the young man."