BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Renee Napier remembers May 11th, 2002 as the day her life felt like it was spiraling out of control.
“I didn’t know how I could even breathe without one of my children,” she said, reflecting on the night when she received the news that her daughter, Meagan, and Meagan’s friend, Lisa Dixon, were killed by a drunk driver.
Eric Smallridge was 24 years old at the time of the accident, and in 2003, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for DUI manslaughter, to be served consecutively, in the deaths of Meagan and Lisa.
“I could see him sitting right off to my left, and I felt like he was angry and I felt like him pleading not guilty was wrong,” Napier remembers about the trial. “He didn’t want to accept that he had been responsible for taking the lives of two girls.”
At the sentencing, Renee was allowed to read a victim’s impact statement to the court. She recounted all the grief she had felt over the loss of her daughter. She also told Eric she forgave him.
“When Renee first expressed her forgiveness towards me, I honestly was blown away by it,” Smallridge remembers of that day. “There were some people who were still very upset, obviously, by what happened and there was some words of hatred, and actually I understood that more.”
“You go in before God alone, and it’s between you and God. It doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks,” Napier said of her decision to forgive Smallridge. “You got to make your decision based on what God is telling you to do.”
Eric had just accepted Christ into his life during his time in jail while the trial was going on, so he was just learning what forgiveness was, but he would grow to discover it’s full meaning. In 2006, Renee went before a judge to ask for Eric’s sentence to be reduced.
“When he finally accepted responsibility, I felt like that sentence was so long, that’s like another life that’s lost,” Napier said. “Instead of losing another life for 22 years, if he could go for 11, and then get out after that, he could be more productive in our society.”
“Whatever was about to happen in that courtroom, the blessing had really already been given. The opportunity to come back and the families of the one’s that i had hurt so badly had pretty much arranged for me to be able to come back by writing their letters of support,” Smallridge recalls of the hearing in 2006. “Most importantly going in to that day was just the gratitude to the families for actually supporting the motion that was about to be heard.”
The judge approved the motion, and Eric was released from jail in 2012, but for two years prior to that, Eric joined Renee on the road as an inmate, speaking about the dangers of drunk driving and his connection to Renee through her ability to forgive him. Now back in society and working, Eric enjoys being able to share this message with Renee.
“When Renee calls me and says, ‘Hey, we’ve been invited to go do a presentation,’ I immediately request time off from my worldly job, so to speak, so that I can go and do His work,” Smallridge says. “It means salvation to me, and it’s not that I have to do it to gain salvation, but I do it because I’m grateful for my salvation.
“We jokingly call her “Saint Renee,” and it’s because her heart is so in tune with Christ’s purpose for her life. She formed a foundation in memory of her daughter, but she devotes pretty much every day of her life to serving Him in the best way that she can.”
“For both of us, we want to be humble. We don’t want anybody to think that we’re trying to do this for our glory, because it’s not for us,” Napier said. “We’re hopefully saving lives, but God gets the glory, we hope. That’s who we want to get the glory.”
When speaking to groups across the country, whether in churches or schools, Renee hopes her message of forgiveness sticks with all who hear her story.
“Forgiveness is not necessarily just for the person who you’re forgiving, it’s for yourself,” Napier said. “If you want to be able to move forward and not be stuck and grieving, you got to forgive, and then you’ll heal and move forward.”
To learn more about Renee’s and Eric’s story or about the foundation Renee created in memory of Meagan, you can visit the website for The Meagan Napier Foundation.
Copyright 2015 WIAT 42 News