Pa. parole board hearing directly from victims

Donna and Steve Gallo wearing T-shirts bearing pictures of their daughter Nicole, who died after being hit by a car driven by Rachael Jankins in 2009.
Donna and Steve Gallo wearing T-shirts bearing pictures of their daughter Nicole, who died after being hit by a car driven by Rachael Jankins in 2009. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 04, 2014

On calendars and in his head, Stephen Gallo tracks the number of days that have passed since his 19-year-old daughter, Nicole, was killed by an intoxicated driver.

Gallo's mother, Donna, has watched her daughter's friends graduate from college, and seen her son pass his sister's age.

Life moves on. But for the Gallos, time stopped the day Rachael Jankins killed Nicole in August 2009.

When the Gallos learned that Jankins, 25, was up for parole last year, they took part in a new program that lets crime victims meet privately with the state parole board and testify about the impact of the crime.

In December, Gallo's parents, brother, and best friend, who was seriously injured in the accident, spoke to board members in Harrisburg about the pain Jankins caused, and why they wanted her to stay behind bars for more than the minimum of her 41/2-to-10-year sentence.

"I wanted them to know that the thing we miss most is the person Nicole was, and how difficult every day is to live without her," Donna Gallo said. "It's a pain that never goes away. It's a sorrow that is never relieved. It's like your life started all over again. And I'm not ready for [Jankins] to get out and be able to start living her life."

Jennifer Storm, newly appointed head of the Office of Victim Advocate, has championed the program as a way for victims to feel they have a say in what happens to the people who hurt them.

Previously, board members could only read letters submitted by victims. Speaking is more empowering for victims, Storm said, and board members can see firsthand the lingering effects of crime.

Since September, victims in 66 cases have testified before the board, and there have been many more requests, Storm said. She estimates the board will hear testimony in at least 200 cases this year.

Not everyone is willing to relive trauma. Some put it behind them and don't want to go back. Some don't show up, and some become physically ill after testifying, even about events that took place years ago.

Even so, Storm said, "I don't think I've sat in on one where people don't say, 'Thank you for giving me this chance.' "

The program was conceived more than a year ago, after the board paroled Rafael Robb, a former University of Pennsylvania professor who killed his wife, Ellen, in their Upper Merion home in 2006.

His release, which the board granted because of Robb's good conduct in prison and acceptance of responsibility, stirred outcry from his wife's relatives and led to a meeting between them and the head of the parole board.

Robb's parole was later reversed, and State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) drafted legislation to allow more input from victims in the process.

The chance to testify can offer an opportunity for people who are at first unable to discuss their trauma.

"I've seen so many people struggle to find their voice," Storm said. "So often, people don't know what they have to say, but they know they have something to say."

In Gallo's case, that change of heart came from Gallo's best friend, Christine Bochanski.

Gallo's death deeply wounded her Clifton Heights community. A popular athlete at Archbishop Prendergast High School, Gallo was walking outside Delaware County Hospital with Bochanski on the morning of Aug. 14, 2009.

Jankins, of Haverford, was driving while high on marijuana and inhalants when she reached for her iPod, she told police. Her car crossed two lanes of oncoming traffic on Lansdowne Avenue, then careered onto the sidewalk where the girls were.

Bochanski remembers walking together with her friend, looking down at their feet, laughing as they always did. It was months before she learned they ran for their lives before being struck by the car. Even now, it's a jumbled puzzle in her mind.

"You know the picture is there, but there are pieces missing," Bochanski, 23, said.

She woke up in the hospital with a tube in her throat, intense back pain, and her body locked into metal braces. She spent almost two weeks in the hospital and months in a brace after doctors fused her spine.

But physical recovery was the easy part.

For a long time, Bochanski, who graduated from Villanova University last year, was too angry to take part in anything related to Gallo's death. She still can't listen to a voicemail message from Gallo, afraid it will hurt too much. It's a snapshot of what her life used to be, she said, the life that now seems like a dream.

"Everything that happened before," she said. "It's almost like it never happened."

But over time, she said, her perspective shifted. She began feeling fortunate for having known Gallo. She learned to accept the past and to trust where life was taking her.

"It's not easy to do, because it means completely letting go of control," she said. "I'm not perfect at it. . . . But the world doesn't stop spinning. It's like being on a treadmill. If you stop, you'll fall flat on your face."

When she learned the Gallos would testify to the parole board, she was finally ready.

"I wanted to be there for the Gallos, and I wanted to put behind me how I was feeling," she said. "It was an opportunity I knew I should take advantage of."

Stephen Gallo Jr., Nicole's brother, was more reluctant to open old wounds. Now 22, Gallo was 17 when his sister died, and he has worked hard to move on because he feels that's what his sister would have wanted.

"But every day, things remind me of Nicole," he said. "I don't anticipate it going away."

Gallo said he told the board he wasn't ready for Jankins to walk the streets again.

"I don't know how much she thinks about it every day," he later said of Jankins. "I hope she does. I hope she can be sorry. But we're going through this every day, and I don't know if she does or doesn't."

The state is compiling data looking at what effect such victims' testimony has in parole decisions, but Storm believes more information is always better. The office of the victim advocate also prepares families for the possibility that even if they tell their stories, the offenders, who also testify before the board, may still be released.

On Thursday, Donna Gallo's phone rang. The board had denied Jankins' parole.

"As emotional as this was for us, it was worth it," Gallo said that day. "She may get out next year. We know that day will come. But today, we know that what we did wasn't for nothing."


For more information on the victims program, call 800-563-6399.


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

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