Governor signs ‘Jessica’s Law’ as family watches
By Allen Palmeri
July 26, 2005
JEFFERSON CITY – The pain of a Missouri Baptist family who lost two members in a deadly drunk driving incident was the driving force behind a bill signed into law July 13 by Gov. Matt Blunt.
Senate Bill 37 honors the memory of seven-year-old Jessica Mann and her grandfather, James Dodson, who were killed last July by a drunken driver as they went to a mailbox along Missouri Highway 86 near Joplin. With the governor’s decision to sign the bill, it is now known as “Jessica’s Law.”
Mike Mann, Jessica’s father and a deacon at First Baptist Church, Joplin, spoke to legislators, reporters and bill supporters in the governor’s office on behalf of the family. Also present were Dodson’s widow, Betty, Jessica’s mother, Amy, and the two living Mann children, Christina and Steven.
Before he conducted a general news conference with members of the Mann family behind him, the governor acknowledged Mike Mann’s motivation to secure the sponsorship of Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin.
“I want to commend you and your family for turning a very tragic situation into something that will benefit the citizens of this state and will help curb DWI activities in Missouri,” Blunt said.
Blunt said Senate Bill 37 and House Bill 972, sponsored by House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, increase the penalties for involuntary manslaughter to a Class B felony if the driver causes the death of another person while he or she has a blood alcohol content of .18 or above.
The law now includes two new classifications of offenders. An aggravated offender is one with three or more DWIs, punishable by a Class C felony with up to seven years in prison. A chronic offender is one with four or more DWIs, punishable by a Class B felony with up to 15 years in prison. Another key provision, the governor said, is the elimination of the 10-year limit on using past alcohol-related incidents to enhance a DWI to a felony.
Nodler said it only makes sense for the state to crack down on drunk drivers.
“When someone consumes too much alcohol and they get into an automobile, they have taken into their hands a lethal weapon,” Nodler said. “That weapon is used too often and too freely to take human life. It is our hope and prayer that with this legislation, fewer incidents of this kind will occur because of the deterrent effect.”
Mann was motivated by a sense of justice, but he also said he was inspired by the religious beliefs and political philosophy of the man who holds the state’s highest office.
“Knowing that I had someone from Springfield Second Baptist at the helm gave me confidence to proceed,” Mann said. “If it had been another situation, I don’t know that I would have.”
Amy Mann, who lost a daughter and a father in the tragedy, said she appreciates all of the ongoing love that members of First Baptist Church, Joplin, continue to show to the family.
“I’m glad we’ve had all the support that we’ve had from the church and from all of our family and friends,” she said.
Conflicting language in Senate Bill 37 and House Bill 972 will be addressed during a special session of the Missouri Legislature in September. These conflicts do not make Missouri’s current laws on drunk driving ineffective, Blunt said. Rather, aligning language in these bills during the special session will offer law enforcement and prosecutors new tools to arrest and convict offenders, the governor said.