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MOTHERS UNITED TO SEND MESSAGE

Jurors who awarded $330 million felt the pain of losing a child.

Christine Donley made it to her driveway before she burst into sobs.

She picked up her cell phone and dialed her 21-year-old daughter - her only child.

"You are perfect to me," Donley, 54, told her. "You're my baby, and I love you."

Donley had just driven to her Brooksville home Wednesday from the Hernando County Government Center, where she had served as forewoman of the jury that awarded more than $330 million in civil damages to a mother who will never get a chance to say the same to her own daughter - her only child.

Angela Stone of Brooksville had made it clear through her attorney that she wanted to send a message by filing the civil suit against Christopher Marcone, the drunken driver who killed Stone's 12-year-old daughter, Shelby Taylor Hagman, in April 2007 in a wreck in eastern Hernando County. Marcone, 27, is serving a 13-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter and three related charges.

Local court observers said the verdict was the largest they could recall.

That wasn't the goal, Donley said in an interview Thursday. The jurors know Stone won't see even a fraction of that amount.

But she and the five other women on the jury agreed that they wanted to help Stone relay her message.

"Nothing can compensate her," Donley said. "But if the figure that sits in the newspaper looks so enormous it stops one person and spares one family that kind of tragedy, it's enough."

As Donley recalled, all five of the other women selected for the jury were mothers. That, she said, made for an especially heart-wrenching two-day trial.

They sat in the courtroom Wednesday and watched a slide show chronicling Shelby's transition from baby to preteen and a home movie of her frolicking with friends.

They endured a visual onslaught of photos from the accident scene, with multiple angles of the mangled remains of the van Shelby was riding in when Marcone ran a stop sign in his Dodge pickup truck.

"Somewhere between 50 and 62 miles per hour," Donley recited. "Twenty-five feet of skid marks."

They heard testimony from emergency personnel who acknowledged that the scene was among the worst they had worked.

They were told how Stone decided to take her daughter off life support because of extensive brain damage. They watched footage of her funeral.

Later, during 45 minutes of deliberations, the women sat with faces streaked with tears, recalled Donley, who does administrative work in her husband's physical therapy office.

"It took us as a group a full five minutes to compose ourselves before we could even speak to one another," she said.

Donley asked if she could say a prayer. All of the women agreed, she said. She asked for wisdom, for guidance, "to be of one mind." One of the jurors complimented her on the prayer and asked Donley to be forewoman.

Stone's attorney, Steve Yerrid of Tampa, had given some guidelines to figure compensatory damages based on medical and funeral costs, how long Shelby would have lived and how long Stone is expected to live. Yerrid told the jury that multiplying that dollar amount by four to come up with the punitive damages would be appropriate.

They figured $55 million for compensatory damages and multiplied by five, doing the math on Donley's cell phone because no one had given them a calculator.

"We decided we wanted to send a slightly bigger statement about people killing people with vehicles," she said. She noted that the jurors were disappointed that Marcone's attorney had not offered his own guidelines. "We really expected to have another perspective."

Her hands trembled as she put all those numbers on the form the clerk would read. She recalled how Stone burst into tears when the verdict was read. Afterward, Stone hugged each juror.

"I told her I would be praying for her, and she said she needed it," Donley said.

Yerrid said Thursday he wasn't trying to pick a jury of mothers. There were more women than men in the jury pool, he said. He was more interested in finding people who could be fair.

Still, the result turned out to be fortuitous, he said.

"Women have a special understanding of the bond between the mother and the daughter and the continuity of the motherhood gene," Yerrid said. "That's what little Shelby represented to her mother and grandmother."

Stone declined through Yerrid to be interviewed. "She does want everyone to know she's grateful that the system seemed to work, and she's grateful to the jury," Yerrid said.

Stone's fight isn't over. She has also filed suit against Kia, claiming a defective seat belt and shoulder harness contributed to Shelby's fatal injuries. But that's for another jury.

Donley said she won't forget Stone's answer in court when asked about Shelby and regrets.

"She said, 'I don't know if I ever told her she was perfect.'"

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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