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A decade in, victims' wreath ceremony still making impact

Staff Photo: John Bohn Nicole Hallmark, whose daughter Mackenzie was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident, was the main speaker at The Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office Victim Witness Program annual Wreath Ceremony held in recognition of National Crime Victims' Rights Week on Monday. Hallmark wears a shirt showing a painting of a heart made by her daughter. The design was recently adopted by the United Nations as a stamp.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Nicole Hallmark, whose daughter Mackenzie was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident, was the main speaker at The Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office Victim Witness Program annual Wreath Ceremony held in recognition of National Crime Victims' Rights Week on Monday. Hallmark wears a shirt showing a painting of a heart made by her daughter. The design was recently adopted by the United Nations as a stamp.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Nicole Hallmark hangs a wreath on the office door of the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office Victim Witness Program during an annual Wreath Ceremony held in recognition of National Crime Victims' Rights Week on Monday. Hallmark, whose daughter Mackenzie was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident, was the main speaker at the ceremony.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, left, speaks while the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office Victim Witness Program holds an annual Wreath Ceremony in recognition of National Crime Victims' Rights Week on Monday. Nicole Hallmark, right, whose daughter Mackenzie was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident, was the main speaker. At center is Candice Pitman, Director of the Victim Witness program.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The bus crash spilled Mackenzie Hallmark and a dozen of her friends across Interstate 85 two days before Christmas. At the scene, clinging to life, the Snellville resident told paramedics, simply, "I'm broken -- call my mom."

Two years later, Mackenzie walks without a hitch, rides horses, even parasails, though she was the most severely injured of 13 developmentally disabled adults tossed from the Just People Inc. bus. And while her mother, Nicole Hallmark, calls the 23-year-old a true survivor and beams at the recovery, she herself has not recovered from the sting that is being victimized by crime.

The bus did not crash itself.

Tapped as a keynote speaker, Nicole Hallmark told her story Monday morning to about 30 family members of other crime victims at the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office Victim Witness Program, which marked its 10th year. Prosecutors, judges and police gathered for the annual wreath ceremony, held in conjunction with the kick-off to National Crime Victims' Rights Week. Some family members dabbed tears while handling the symbolic wreath.

District Attorney Danny Porter said the focus on victims' rights has grown exponentially since his law career began in 1981, to the point that giving victims priority is now a legal requirement.

"(The ceremony) gives us a chance to rededicate ourselves to this idea of justice," Porter said. "Sometimes you have to remember who you're working for -- the ones who have suffered the most."

For Nicole, vindication came when all victims of the bus crash came face-to-face in a courtroom with the drunken driver, Joy Christine Wilson, of Atlanta, whose Honda slammed into the bus, causing it to hit a guardrail and tip over.

Wilson, 34, sped away from the crash site and was arrested a short time later. In November she pleaded guilty to multiple counts of hit-and-run and serious injury by vehicle. She's serving 20 years in prison.

The bus was part of a caravan traveling from Norcross to an art class in Hoschton. The objective that day was for members to paint a special heart design in oils.

Two weeks later, victims who had recovered finished the painting and presented it to a hospitalized Mackenzie. A similar design was submitted to the United Nations, where it has come to symbolize autistic awareness.

Nicole, donning a shirt with the heart design, said she's grateful that her daughter's travails have had a relatively pleasant resolution, one that other victims can never know.

"She's awesome," Nicole said of her daughter. "She's fixed."