She was salutatorian, he a star athlete. But a tragic DUI crash left two families devastated.
Lauren Norris never knew what hit her.
Her neck snapped when a pickup truck slammed into the side of her car, shattering the frame.
She was still breathing when a nurse drove up and tried to help. But the 20-year-old — who was planning a wedding just months away — never regained consciousness.
She died the evening of March 24, 2017, in a crash caused by the actions of a 21-year-old drunken, reckless and speeding driver.
A driver she knew.
They had gone to the same high school, walked the same halls, ate lunch in the same cafeteria.
She was salutatorian. He was Mr. Greene County High School, equivalent to homecoming king.
She was a dancer. He was captain of the football and baseball teams.
She was an accomplished nursing student after graduation. He was a college baseball player.
She was a kind, older sibling to an autistic child, and so was he.
But their worlds collided at exactly the wrong moment, at exactly the wrong intersection of a rural southern Mississippi county just east of Hattiesburg.
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The driver was Joey Beard, son of a longtime Justice Court judge.
He was racing at 68 mph down a dirt road with a 35 mph speed limit, ran a stop sign and T-boned Norris’ car. Also in the truck were three young men, including the son of a Mississippi state trooper.
A blood test taken over an hour after the accident revealed Beard was more than twice the state’s legal limit of intoxication at .08 percent. He registered .196 percent.
The Sun Herald spent months conducting interviews, reviewing police logs and investigative reports as well as depositions and other court filings to take a closer look at the case that prompted those involved to question the outcome.
Both families would end up devastated, and it provides a cautionary tale of how DUI crashes can have profound effects on not just those involved, but also their loved ones.
‘You never get over it’
For the Norris family, Lauren’s death ended the hopes and dreams they had for her future.
Gone were her plans for a nursing career that included work with special needs children such as her younger brother, Jack, who is autistic.
And gone were her plans to marry longtime beau Blaine Gunther and raise a family with him.
“You never get over it,” Lauren’s dad, John Norris Jr., said. “A piece of you is gone. I know it’s been over a year but the reality of it is, I still don’t know if it has really sank in good. You know, you still expect to see her ... .”
When Judge Joseph Beard Sr. talks about his son’s accident, his face falls and his tears flow.
“I don’t wish this on anyone, as a parent or as a person,” he said, his voice crumbling. “But there is more than one set of victims here.
“Joey’s family is a victim, too. Joey is not the devil they’ve made him out to be. He made a mistake. He did the right thing. He accepted responsibility. People need to understand that. We’ve lost here, too.”
A day of drinking
The day of the crash started early for Joey Beard. He went to a liquor store and bought a bottle of vodka he’d later mix with Red Bull and drink out of a Styrofoam cup while he drove.
By 11 a.m., he had picked up a friend with a case of Michelob Ultra.
The two went fishing for a bit, road around some dirt roads, then stopped at another friend’s house to help him finish installing some fencing.
Around lunch, Joseph Beard said his son stopped by his law office. He said his son had not been drinking.
But evidence and testimony showed the young men had an assortment of booze: there was the Michelob Ultra, Coors Light, Miller Lite and Abita Andygator beer, plus the vodka and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire whiskey.
All of the three friends in the truck talked about the crash in sworn testimony taken before the criminal and civil trials.
One of the men said they were just cutting up, “boys being boys.”
At one point, Beard drove off the road to do doughnuts in someone’s yard, authorities verified.
The homeowner had a friend follow the truck to get the tag number and call it in to authorities. A license plate check, Sheriff Stanley McLeod said, confirmed the truck belonged to Joey Beard, but a deputy never responded.
Instead, a dispatcher instructed the caller to come to the station Monday to report the incident. It was a Friday.
“The sheriff’s department should have sent a deputy,” said Lauren Norris’ grandfather, John Norris Sr. said. “And then, maybe, none of this would have happened.”
The sheriff said he has only a couple of deputies to respond to such incidents, and the truck likely would have been gone by the time one arrived.
“Everyone wished something was done, but I don’t know what could have been done,” Sheriff McLeod said. “They didn’t stay where they did the doughnuts.”
The wreck happened a good distance from where Beard drove into the yard, the sheriff said.
“It’s a tragic thing to happen to both families. No winners in this thing. Everyone is losing.”
When Joey Beard turned onto the dirt-and-gravel Alice Road late that afternoon, he hit the gas, his truck fishtailing before he straightened it out and kept going.
At one point, the boys stopped to say hi to a man on four-wheeler.
Then, Beard hit the gas.
When he sped around a curve, one of the men told him to slow down. Joey Beard slowed for a second, his friends said, then hit the gas and raced toward Mississippi 63.
Lauren Norris was on that highway, headed south toward Leakesville to pick up some dog food.
One of Joey Beard’s friends said he looked at his phone to keep his eyes off the road because the driving was scaring him.
“Hell, yeah,” Beard yelled as Ted Nugent’s, “Stranglehold,” began to blast over the stereo speakers in his truck.
Those were the last words he spoke before the crash.
Seconds later, the truck slammed into a car.
‘What are we going to do?’
Beard’s front-seat passenger landed on the dashboard, blacked out for a minute and woke to the sounds of a friend in the backseat saying his leg was broken and bleeding.
The first words out of Joey Beard’s mouth after the crash were, “’Oh, my God! What are we going to do?’”
He wanted his friends to grab his duffel bag — with marijuana, a pot grinder and a glass water bong in it — and hide it in the woods nearby, evidence and testimony showed. One the friends said he couldn’t hide it because it “just didn’t feel right.”
Cops found the red ice chest full of beer sitting down the street from the pickup.
Beard and some of the friends did go over to the girl’s wrecked car to see if they could help, but she was unconscious.
“He said he went over there and said a prayer for her,” Joey Beard’s dad said.
A warrant was issued to draw blood from Joey Beard for testing.
The first draw registered .19 percent. A second one three hours after the crash came back at .16 percent, still more than twice the legal limit.
Joseph Beard said his son had only a couple of drinks of vodka the day of the crash.
Others question that.
His friends said Joey held his liquor well, and could be very drunk but still sound sober.
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‘Jump the road’
An analysis of the black box data from the truck showed Beard didn’t hit the brakes until less than a second before impact.
“There was never a skid mark laid,” District Attorney Tony Lawrence said. “The brake never really would have engaged.”
Prosecutors contend Joey Beard never had any intention of stopping, instead planning to “jump the road,” a deadly driving game akin to Russian roulette, but with a driver who tries to blindly race through an intersection without hitting anyone.
The passengers said Beard never mentioned jumping the road that day, but they had heard of others doing it.
One passenger said he was afraid to ask Beard if he was playing “jump the road.” He knew Beard had driven Alice Road a “thousand times” and had to know the stop sign was there.
He was also scared of what Beard might say.
“If Joey tells me he didn’t try to stop, I mean, that’s putting my life in danger, too,” the young man said. “I mean, I’ve got a daughter and I’ve — I’ve been fired up mad because I thought he did it.”
The same friend said he talked to his dad because it upset him so much.
He never felt like Beard gave it his best effort to stop, adding he only saw Norris’ car “for a split second before impact.”
Joey Beard told the judge he wasn’t able to stop in time because he was speeding.
Joseph Beard said his son never intended to do as prosecutors suggested because he hit his brakes before impact.
A matter of justice
In the months after the crash, a grand jury indicted Beard on felony charges of second-degree murder and tampering with evidence.
Joseph Beard believes his son should have never been indicted on the murder charge because he said he did not intentionally set out to kill anyone.
Instead of enduring a long trial, the Norris family agreed to a plea deal to reduce that charge to DUI causing death.
Had Beard gone to trial for second-degree murder and been convicted, he would have faced 20 years in prison without the possibility of early release.
The district attorney knew the deal would offer Beard a chance of early release. So, Lawrence recommended Beard serve consecutive maximum sentences for each crime — 25 years for DUI causing death, 10 years for tampering with evidence.
Because of state sentencing laws, prisoners with parole eligibility usually serve about half of their time, or even less with credit for good behavior.
The prosecutor had told the Norris family that Beard would most likely serve about 15 years if the judge followed the state’s recommendation.
“We could live with the 15 years, but that’s not what happened,” John Norris said.
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‘Plea for mercy’
On the day of the plea hearing, the Norris family testified about the pain of their loss. They spoke about the void Lauren’s death created, especially for her younger brother, who still doesn’t understand why the big sister he called “Lolly” hasn’t come home.
A humbled and sobbing Beard, then 22, turned to the Norris family for the first time since the crash and apologized. He said he’d trade places with Lauren if he could.
Beard explained how he had been drinking alcohol and speeding when he ran the stop sign. He said he tried to stop.
But he wasn’t the only one to speak on his behalf. Three prominent members of the community stood up, offered their sympathies to the Norris family and pleaded for leniency for the athlete and native son of Leakesville, the county seat.
One was a uniformed Mississippi state trooper, then serving as assistant commander for Troop J, and a former Hattiesburg police DUI officer once lauded for making 300 DUI arrests in one year.
Another was Scott Bray, longtime principal at Greene County High.
The third was Russell Turner, publisher of the county weekly, the Greene County Herald.
“We felt almost like we had been ambushed when we saw other people were going to stand up there and ask for even less time for him,” John Norris said. “They asked for leniency, but we felt like more leniency wasn’t needed. We already agreed to a plea.”
The judge, Special Judge Steve Simpson, is a former director of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. He recognized Mississippi Highway Patrol Master Sgt. Todd Miller when he stood to speak, and the two reminisced briefly.
Miller spoke as a trooper and a father.
He said he’s seen firsthand the grief an impaired driver can cause because he’s had to deliver the bad news to those families.
But, Miller said, he also knew Beard as a mentor to many kids over the years, including his own children.
He told the judge the young man was already living with the fact that “he’s not only ruined his own life and ruined the life of this young lady’s family but he’s ruined his own family’s life.”
The Norris family was outraged.
“When he walked through the door in uniform, we thought he might have been there to recount some of what happened at the scene,” Norris said.
“If anything, he should have been condemning his (Joey Beard’s) actions instead of asking for leniency, especially in a case of DUI causing death.”
Bray recalled how both students excelled in school, took part in extracurricular activities and got along well with their teachers and classmates.
He didn’t figure out what he should say at the sentencing until a teacher shared how Lauren Norris had been saved and baptized before her death. He said he knew she was OK.
“She has seen Jesus face to face,” he said. “She has seen love, she has seen compassion, she has seen mercy and grace firsthand. She’s experienced that in heaven.”
And, he said, she would be the first to forgive Beard.
Bray said he also knew Beard as a “sweet, loving, kind young man.”
“He spent times with kids at the lunchroom table,” he said. “When nobody else would sit with them, Joey was the one that went and sat with them.”
Newspaper publisher Russell Turner described Beard as a “great athlete” with “heartthrob good looks,” who came from a “well-liked family” and was “smart, well-mannered, popular.”
But Turner said life didn’t always come easy for Joey Beard. From an early age, he served as a caregiver to his autistic sister. The same young man, he said, went on to provide care to his to grandfather when he was dying.
He said he wasn’t there to defend Beard’s actions the day of the crash.
“It’s indefensible,” Turner said, “ . . . but make no mistake about it, it was an accident.”
‘He’s going to come out a convict’
Beard’s father, a judge for 35 years, took the stand last. He asked the fellow judge to consider how his son would be treated in prison because of who his was father was.
“They won’t forget me, and just as if you were the sentencing judge, they won’t forget you,” he said. “But, if they can’t take it out on you, what’s the next best step? Take it out on your son.”
Joseph Beard feared how prison would change his son.
“He’s not going to come out Joey Beard,” he said. “He’s going to come out a convict. He’s going to walk like one, act like one. I know.”
After the testimony, Simpson differed from the prosecutor’s recommendation, deciding Beard would serve 35 years, with the sentences to run at the same time, concurrently instead of consecutively.
As a result, Beard will likely get out of prison after serving 12 1/2 years.
“I know two years doesn’t sound like much, but it meant something to us,” John Norris said. “We felt we had already given him a break.”
To one family, Joey Beard is a killer who didn’t get the full prison time he deserved. To another, he’s a good kid who messed up and got a stiffer sentence than others with similar cases.
In a public Facebook post, John Norris expressed his frustration:
He wrote, in part:
“We as a family have never been in the Leakesville clique, nor have we ever desired to be. We have always been content on our little slice of heaven we call The Hundred Acre Woods, which, by the way, now has a cemetery on it.”
He ended the post denouncing the three men that asked for leniency for his daughter’s killer.
“You tried to use your positions of power and influence to sway the judge in this case. Some might say that it didn’t happen, but it did.
“We as a family decided to offer the plea to the defendant in hope that the situation would be resolved quickly, so both families could start the healing process. Leniency had already been given before you ever stepped foot in the courtroom.
“I hope and pray you three never have to bury a child and suffer the grief that I have. But if you did, just how much leniency would you want for the man that put that child in the ground?”
Judge Beard remains incensed about his son’s sentence. He says it’s a harsher than others sentenced for much worse crimes.
“I’ve been in the legal business for 35 years,” Beard said. “I’ve never seen anyone when they plead guilty to what they are actually guilty of get the maximum sentence. My son never even had a parking ticket.”
He pointed to the case of a drunk driver who killed two people in a crash and injured a third. The man is serving 14 years on each charge of DUI causing death.
“Everyone knows justice had to be served,” Beard said. “Everyone. Even me, I knew it, but you expect to be treated like everyone else.”
The difference between Joey Beard’s case and the others, according to the prosecutor, was that the original second-degree murder charge had already been reduced, and the case included facts about how Joey Beard was driving dangerously and tried to get someone to hide evidence.
He called Beard’s actions reckless.
“Had he stopped and hit the brakes, Lauren (Norris) would be alive today and you and I wouldn’t be talking,” Lawrence said.
A look at sentence in DUI causing death cases:
- Michael Joseph Kennedy was sentenced to 25 years in prison for DUI causing the death of Robert Ivey, 21, of Gulfport, while he was pouring gas in the tank of a truck on the shoulder of Interstate 10 on March 19, 2017, in Harrison County.
- A judge sentenced Natalie Duvernay to 25 years in prison for DUI causing death, but suspended seven of those year, leaving Duvernay with 18 years to serve for causing the April 21, 2017, death of Iris Franklin.
- Albert D. Womack Jr. was sentenced to 15 years in prison for DUI causing the death of Lea Breaux, a passenger in his car, on May 8, 2004, in Harrison County. The judge suspended 13 years of the sentence, leaving Womack to serve two years in prison for DUI causing death.
- Asa Robert Vice was legally drunk when he was involved in a Dec. 31, 2014, crash that killed Brian M. Walls and Edward Dean Parnell in Jackson County. A grand jury indicted him on two counts of second-degree murder, but he pleaded guilty to reduced charges of manslaughter. He is serving a total sentence of 28 years, or 14 years for each manslaughter charge.
- Michelle Moran was sentenced to 25 years in prison, with 18 years suspended and seven years to serve for DUI causing the April 13, 2001, death of Francis Arlene Conant, in Harrison County.
- Ravielle Rachaed Bolton was ordered to serve a total of 25 years in prison for DUI causing the June 16, 2012, deaths of his father and two uncles in George County.