Elaine Brooks has gone almost four years without her daughter, and still the pain and grief are fresh in her mind.
Lisa Torry Smith was killed, and her six-year-old son severely injured, when the driver of a car struck them in a crosswalk while she was walking him to school in October 2017.
“It happens when you least expect it,” said Brooks, Smith’s mother. “That’s why a sudden death like that is so hard to get your arms around, and deal with. You don’t ever really deal with it. You continue to grieve, for years.”
Smith’s family and friends secured a measure of solace in the Texas Legislature this year. A new law, known as the Lisa Torry Smith Act, is set to go into effect Sept. 1.
The bill, also known as Senate Bill 1055, will give prosecutors new tools to charge motorists that hit or severely injure pedestrians using a crosswalk or an intersection, Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton said.
Prior to the bill, all crimes would have fallen under the charge of criminally negligent homicide, Middleton said. Grand juries found the statute broad and difficult to apply in specific cases, Middleton said.
A Fort Bend grand jury ultimately declined to indict the driver in Smith’s death with any criminal charges, and the driver only received a ticket.
But Senate Bill 1055 will allow prosecutors to charge drivers who cause bodily injury to a pedestrian with a class A misdemeanor, and a state jail felony if the driver causes serious bodily injury or death, Middleton said. Those charged with the misdemeanor could be sentenced up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Those charged with the felony could receive between six months and two years in jail, and up to a $10,000 fine.
Middleton, Smith’s family members and the legislators behind the bill gathered at the Fort Bend County Justice Center last week to celebrate the law as well as to explain the history behind it.
For Brooks, it was the end result she’d been pursuing since just a few days after the death of her daughter, she said in a separate interview later that week.
“We’ve just kept trying to change the law,” she said. “We wanted to change it so that, if you killed someone, you wouldn’t just get a traffic ticket.”
Smith on Oct. 19, 2017 was walking her son to school in the Sienna subdivision in Missouri City, said Wes Wittig, spokesperson for the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office. As the mother and six-year-old son were crossing the intersection at Sienna Ranch and Nueces Creek, they were struck, Wittig said.
The 37-year-old Smith died from her injuries, Brooks said. Her son, although severely injured, eventually recovered.
“Logan had to watch his mother die in the street,” Brooks said. “He kept saying, ‘Please don’t let mommy die.’”
Smith was the loving mother of two boys, a person who would do anything for her friends and family and was an absolute spitfire of energy, according to her mother.
The events of that October morning and the investigation after the fact – especially the lack of consequences for the driver – left the family angry, Brooks said.
“We were mad that Lisa died needlessly,” she said.
The case eventually drew bipartisan sympathy, leading to State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Democrat, and State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican, to team up with Middleton, a Democrat, and sponsor legislation that Gov. Greg Abbott eventually signed into law in June.
“I want to see people pay attention at crosswalks,” Reynolds said of what he hopes to see of the new law. “I want people to think twice. And for prosecutors, this gives the law teeth to ensure accountability.”
Both Huffman and Reynolds also spent time praising each other’s work, and also noting how unusual it is for something to garner such bipartisan support in such bitterly divided times.
Senate Bill 1055 passed both chambers of the Texas Legislature unanimously.
For Brooks and Smith’s other family members, the day hit somewhat strangely.
“It has intensified my grief,” Brooks said. “At the same time, I’m extremely happy. But it’s also intensified my grief, because she’s not here.”
No piece of legislation can bring back Smith, or provide justice for the family, Brooks said. But perhaps it can help some future mother trying to cross the street with her children, Brooks said.
Across both Texas and the county, pedestrian deaths have been on the rise in recent years, according to a report by the Texas Department of Transportation. Pedestrian fatalities increased 18 percent between 2015 and 2019.
In 2019, the state saw more than 5,900 crashes involving pedestrians, including 1,317 with serious injuries and 669 deaths, according to the department.
Investigators said pedestrians failing to yield to right-of-way vehicles, drivers failing to yield, driver inattention and speeding were the top factors in the crashes, according to the department.
The new law is an important first step in getting those deaths down to zero, said Robin Stallings, the executive director of BikeTexas, a statewide advocacy organization.