LAUREL HILL — It's been nearly a year since Benny Howell told his mama he loved her. Since he got in a friend's pickup truck for the short ride home from a party. Since the truck left the road and Benny was injured. Since the Laurel Hill School grad died on the way to the hospital.
He was 19.
So was his friend, Chase Locke, who was driving. Both boys had been drinking, with Chase consuming enough alcohol that four hours after the crash his blood-alcohol level was still over the legal limit.
The accident and its aftermath rocked the tight community of Laurel Hill. Legally, Chase was at fault. But what should happen to him was less clear, even to those who loved Benny most.
His older sister, Amber Howell Kelley, said her desire to honor what she thought Benny would have wanted outweighed her own feelings. And Benny did not like to see people get in trouble.
"No matter what Chase has to do, light or severe, it's not going to bring my brother back," she said. "Why take another man that is doing good away from another family? Why lose two?"
For their mother, Dawn Howell Lawson, it was more complex. She agrees that Benny wouldn't have wanted Chase to go to jail. But she didn't want to see him get just a "slap on the hand" either.
"I feel like Benny could have done a lot more in his life, and it breaks my heart that he's not here," she said. "I don't want anybody to forget about my son."
On the night before Benny died, he was sleeping at his sister's house while their mom stayed with a friend in Crestview.
Benny and Amber shared sweet tea and chicken tenders before she went to sleep and he went to a friend's birthday party.
When she woke the next morning, she assumed he was still sleeping and went to work. About 10 a.m. she got the call that her brother had died four hours earlier.
Chase was driving them home when lost control of his truck and crashed into an embankment. It was 4:30 a.m. Neither boy was wearing a seatbelt.
Chase wasn't seriously injured. But Benny was bleeding from his ears, a sign of internal head trauma. He told Chase he was fine, that he just needed to walk it off, but he died on the way to the hospital.
"If he would have just called me, I would have come and got him," Amber said. "I would have come and got both of them."
At the exact time of the crash, his mom said she woke up and sat straight up in bed. She couldn't go back to sleep and had a powerful feeling that she needed to get home.
On her way to the hospital, she had a bad feeling. No one would tell her anything.
When Chase was sentenced Sept. 20, Benny's mom and sister were there. So were some of Chase's friends and family members.
The prosecution had asked the judge to sentence Chase to more than 10 years in state prison. The defense had argued that he be sentenced as a youthful offender and spared jail time.
Dawn made a statement, but she did not state her preference for Chase's sentencing in the courtroom that day. Instead, she talked about the giant hole left in her life by his passing.
She told the judge how much she missed Benny, how hard it had been for her to get married earlier this month and not have her son to walk with her down the aisle.
Chase made a statement as well.
"He talked about how every morning when he looked at himself in the mirror he has to deal with the fact that he caused the death of his friend," said Assistant State Attorney Clifton Drake.
"He talked about ... trying to do the right thing moving forward and living a different life than he had."
In the end, the judge sentenced Chase as a youthful offender, withholding adjudication and putting him on probation for six years.
He cannot drink or use any illegal drugs during his years on probation. His driver's license has been permanently revoked. He also has to perform 100 hours of community service and is instructed to spend that time speaking to students and other groups about the dangers of driving drunk.
Assistant State Attorney Clifton Drake said that it a was sad situation and that every possible outcome would still be sad.
"You have two 19-year-olds. One dies and one is faced with living every day knowing that he killed his friend," Drake said. "No one is happy in a case like that.
"No matter which way it went, you're still going to have a mother who lost her son and you're still going to have a 19-year-old whose life is forever changed."
Some found peace with the sentence. Others were left unsatisfied.
Benny's mom said she wishes Chase would have looked at her in the courtroom, spoken to her, apologized to her.
That wouldn't have brought back her sweet, goofy, hard-working redneck country boy of a son, but it would have eased her pain a little.
Sometimes, she has trouble believing that it's real. That she will never see him or speak to him again.
"Even when I'm at work, I think, 'What would you do if you saw him walk around the corner?'" she says. "I still feel like sometimes he's just off on a vacation or something and will be back."
For Jacob Fullerton, who was close to both Benny and Chase, the sentence was the right one.
"The overall outcome of it hurts, but it is what it is," he said. ""It's not like they decided, 'Let's go wreck this vehicle tonight and see who walks away.'
“I know Chase is going to have to wake up every morning and know he was the driver of the vehicle where one of his good buddies passed away,” he added. "I know Benny, for a fact, if he'd lived through it, I promise you he would have got up and said, 'Damn, that was crazy.' "
And, he added, the accident has "woken up a lot of young people."
"Everybody just pays more attention," he said. "Life can be taken away from you in a matter of seconds."