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Failing the test of moral fiber

He thought he hit a trash can.

That's what the driver of a blue SUV said, after police tracked him down to his Orchard Park home and charged him with leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident last weekend that killed a young woman, Meghan Sorbera, as she walked home from work.

A trash can.

Imagine the chill that must have swept up the spines of the parents of Meghan, a 19-year-old Hilbert College student, when they heard their daughter described that way.

Defense is defense, in matters of law. But still: Words count. Trash?

That word slices like a scalpel, and it must have, in the hearts of Meghan's family.

Here's what really happened, according to Hamburg police: John P. Duffy, 41, was cruising down one of Hamburg's busiest thoroughfares at about 1:35 a.m. Saturday, after a night out that had involved drinking. He had stopped for fast food near the Erie County Fairgrounds before turning back onto South Park Avenue.

That's where his story intersects, brutally, with Meghan's.

The teenager was walking along the road with two friends, on her way home from her job at the fairgrounds' haunted house.

Duffy later said, through his lawyer, Daniel J. Chiacchia, that he thought he hit garbage because he looked out his rearview window and saw papers flying up in the air.


One can only hope, for Meghan's sake, that she never knew what hit her. That she was enjoying her friends, and her last moments of life, without fear.

Duffy's words, though, are telling. He knew he hit something -- something that took a bad blow, and flew up in pieces. He slowed down briefly, witnesses said, then drove off.

Chiacchia warned people not to get too self-righteous in blaming his client.

"All you people out there pointing fingers," he said, "this could happen to any one of us."

What's sad is that he's right -- at least in part.

Driving is dangerous. Leave alcohol out of the equation entirely; any one of us could reach down for a french fry and strike something on the side of the road. Or, God forbid, someone.

But here's where backbone tells. There is one honest thing to do in such a situation, and Duffy -- a "great guy" who would "give his heart to anyone," his law partner told reporters -- didn't do it.

He had one chance at the scene. He had another chance afterward, in the three days police spent hunting for the SUV driver. Instead of coming forward, he tried to fix his damaged car.

Tests of our moral fiber don't spring out of nowhere in life. They start early, in situations with minor consequences, and grow bigger as we do. Remember when you were a kid and your mom or dad made you go back into the drugstore and hand over an item you had tried to steal? Small beans, in terms of the cost to society; but oh what a lesson. The feeling of owning up to dishonesty is one you don't soon forget.

In some ways, as a culture, we've fallen away from the highest of standards when it comes to truth. Elected officials lie and get caught. "Truthiness" is a concept that gets Stephen Colbert laughs, but it has a dark side, too. Average folks, going about their daily lives, need look no further than Wall Street to see what can happen when people operate dishonestly.

It can be hard to keep yourself on the straight and narrow when you see other people profit by doing the reverse.

That's where I hope Duffy and his lawyers are wrong.

I'd like to believe that more of us -- still -- would stop, rather than hit the gas pedal and drive away.


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