(Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories. The first story appeared in the July 16 issue of the Frostproof News.)
Tragedies are forever tinged with the terrible twirls of “what if.” That fall night, now almost a decade ago, is certainly no exception.
What if Danny Norris Jr. had been home when his parents expected? What if that car traveling south on Scenic Highway hadn’t swerved toward a group of Frostproof young adults hanging out in a restaurant parking lot? What if he and two friends had never jumped in his truck, along with others there that night who jumped into other vehicles, to chase the wayward Ford Thunderbird?
Early in the morning, Nov. 6, 2004, the lives of many people in Frostproof changed forever, when Norris’ truck rolled on Walk in Water Road, ejecting he and two of his best friends, Ricky Russ and Mitch Venable. Russ and Venable lost their lives; Norris was sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of DUI manslaughter.
Norris is hoping for one more very important chance, the chance to change the lives of Frostproof youngsters today who could learn from the what-ifs of that night.
There are many in the community who are now asking another “what if,” what if Norris were allowed to come home, to once again serve the city which he served, to once again be the positive influence so many saw he had already become, even at such a young age?
And, what if that list of those asking the state clemency board to take on a review of the case includes relatives of one of those killed?
“This was young people using poor judgment and making bad choices. Ricky would tell you (if he was able) that he was responsible for the choices he made,” wrote Ricky’s mother, Bonny Russ. “Danny is and always has been a wonderful young man. Danny had a bright future ahead of him at one time, and bad decisions by a lot of young people and older people the night of the accident took his, Ricky’s and Mitch’s future away.”
She described Danny and Ricky as “best friends.”
“He can’t undo what happened, but if he could prevent one young person from drinking and driving, from participating in car chases, or simply making a bad choice, if he could save one young life, it would keep families from going through what we went through. I don’t believe prison is always the right answer,” she added.
Russ’ cousin, Tasha Fairall-Morales, concurred.
“Danny isn’t a bad guy, in fact, he’s the opposite,” she noted. “He’s a great guy who had a great future ahead of him. To lose Ricky was the hardest thing I have ever been through. I don’t think much more could top it. But to see Danny sitting behind bars only makes it worse.”
Norris’ upbringing was loving but tough, nurturing but no-nonsense.
“I tried to be a model citizen; because that’s the way I was brought up,” Norris Jr. noted. “It has been quite overwhelming how much the people of Frostproof have continued to support me through everything.”
The details of that night are forgotten by Norris. His last recollection of that evening-turned-tragic-early-morning is a stop at the Town Star gas station on U.S. 27, well before the deadly events unfolded. His next recollection is of waking up in the intensive care unit of Winter Haven Hospital almost two days later.
“He would go out, but he wouldn’t stay out very late. That’s what surprised us. Because usually by 11 o’clock, he’s coming in the front door,” his mother Carolyn noted.
“This is the latest he’d ever stayed out,” his father, Danny Sr., added. “We never tried to be Danny’s friend. We tried to be Danny’s parents. And we see so many people nowadays that want to be friends with your children. Don’t be friends with your children, wait until you get older, then be friends with them. Be parents when they need parents.”
Like every parent, there was no reason to believe their son would be in the middle of such a story.
Norris was a volunteer firefighter, and earned a scholarship to Florida Southern after an active and successful career in the Frostproof High School FFA program. He got his associates degree in citrus from South Florida State College. He volunteered to help install an irrigation system at the city’s Henderson Field, and is remembered by many in the community for the dozens of uninterrupted hours he worked in the city to help clear hurricane debris mere months before the accident.
Even after the incident, when he could no longer drive, family members would drive him to fire department calls so he could still assist.
“We thought we had done a real good job. I would have never in my dreams thought this would have happened,” Danny Sr. added. “If he had been on drugs, if he had stole things, I would be the first to say leave him there and not get out, let him take his punishment.”
So impressed were people in the citrus business, that Raphord Farrington, a vice president with Ben Hill Griffin Inc., was hoping Norris would come work with his company.
“He would have been a great asset for the company because of his demeanor and quiet approach to solving problems,” Farrington wrote. “I was very impressed with him as a young man and knew him as one of the best equipment operators in the citrus industry. I always requested him to do the tree pushing in the groves I own.”
At the Avon Park Correctional Institution, he works as part of the Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises program, a model employee who is now head clerk, trouble shooting software, running the plant and designing databases as well as running weekly and monthly reports and payroll. He attends church services on Wednesdays, and weekly Alcoholics Anonymous classes as well.
A plea deal reached in 2011 reduced his sentence from 30 years to 15. Without a commutation of sentence, an extreme long shot, he must serve a minimum of 85 percent of that time. Either way, he’s planning on working with the family’s citrus business once he is released.
The state clemency board, which next meets in September, is made up of Florida’s four constitutional officers, Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
All the paperwork needed for the commutation of sentence request has already been submitted to the board. Two of the four members of the board must agree to hear the case, and when a decision might come on whether that could happen is anyone’s guess.
The paperwork first goes to the Florida Commission on Offender Review which then makes an advisory recommendation on the case to the clemency board itself. According to the group’s website, upon receipt of written notification from the Governor and at least one member of the clemency board granting a request for review, the case can then be given a full investigation and placed on an agenda to be heard by the board.
A felon can only make such a request after serving at least a third of their sentence.
“He thinks every single minute, why did the Good Lord save me? There’s got to be a purpose somewhere in all of this,” his father said.
The Norris family, like the rest touched in this tragedy, can never escape that day.
It’s a terrible irony that helps keep all three of those in the accident that night in the Norris family’s thoughts. There’s no what if about why that is, and why Danny Jr. will never forget, as if that were even possible.
“It goes through our minds almost every minute of every day,” Danny Sr. said. “We live right beside the cemetery where the two boys are buried. We see their graves every single day. Not most days. Every single day.”