A dozen year's of a mother's pain, hope and determination brings a law to help others
It’s been a long journey for Brandon D’Annunzio’s loved ones.
It’s been more than 12 years since his high school friend Andrew VanSchooneveld was graced by Brandon’s light-hearted, contagious attitude.
Too many years since his grandmother Betty Smith was greeted by his hugs and kisses.
And for his mother, Shawn D’Annunzio, it’s been far too long since she saw her only son’s electric smile and heard his infectious laugh.
For more than a decade, she has continued through life knowing her son’s killer moved on scot-free after leaving her son dead, her family distraught and her heart broken.
Indeed it has been a long trek for Shawn D’Annunzio.
Fueled by her son’s memory, Shawn D’Annunzio spent nearly two years working to pass a law bearing her son’s name.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Brandon D’Annunzio’s Law.
She said her son helped her through the process, and she knows he would be proud.
“He would have done the exact same thing for me — I know it in my heart,” Shawn D’Annunzio said. “He’s been with me along the way. I’ve felt his presence every time I’ve testified and every time I’ve heard something — he’s been right there.”
It was supposed to be a happy occasion.
Brandon was in East Lansing on a Spartan football weekend in October 2000 attending a friend’s bachelor party when things turned south. This was the weekend the 24-year-old’s life was cut short.
When sitting on the side of M.A.C. Avenue after a night at the bars, Brandon was approached by another intoxicated individual. A scuffle ensued.
The individual hit him, knocked him backward and Brandon’s skull cracked on the curb.
Eleven days later, he died in Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital from brain trauma while his killer walked free. It was the same day he planned to tell his mother he was going to propose to his girlfriend.
The case had gone cold until a story published in The State News on the 10-year anniversary of the event motivated a witness to come forward — eventually leading police to the suspected culprit.
But there was one catch: the witness came forward after the ten-year statute of limitation for manslaughter had run out, leaving East Lansing police and Shawn D’Annunzio at a deadend. They were unable to prosecute Brandon’s killer.
Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said it was a feeling of “desolate hopelessness” when they were unable to move forward with charges.
Dunnings said he knew he had to tell Shawn D’Annunzio in person.
“I just saw her just deflate,” Dunnings said. “It was painful. One of the things as a prosecutor we do is try to help crime victims try to bridge from the empty helplessness of loss to some sense of normalcy. And that just wasn’t possible.”
Thus began Shawn D’Annunzio’s expedition to find closure and ensure this wouldn’t happen to another family.
She began petitioning for Brandon D’Annunzio’s Law.
When testifying before the House Judiciary Committee last October, Shawn D’Annunzio told legislators the most chilling part was knowing who her son’s killer was, where he lived and everything about him — but being incapable of taking any action.
The law changes the statute of limitations for crimes such as manslaughter, kidnapping and attempted murder. In the new law, the statute of limitations begins once a culprit is identified, rather than when the crime occurs.
“It’s a lot of closure for my family — that’s the main reason that I did it,” Shawn D’Annunzio said. “This can’t happen to these people who lose their children.”
When Brandon died, his killer got away because of a “loop-hole” in the old law, said state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, the author of the new law.
Although DNA evidence was not usable in Brandon’s case, the law opens doors in other cold cases where DNA might be involved.
David Foran, the director of the forensic science program at MSU, said modern DNA science and databases allow crime labs to identify suspects long after a crime was committed.
“For biological evidence, if it has been stored correctly — mostly meaning cold or dry and hasn’t been allowed to degrade at all — it’s been easy to go back to evidence that is 10, 20 or 30 years old and get a DNA profile from it,” Foran said.
Foran said this DNA profile can be searched against a nationwide database to identify a suspect.
Ten to 15 years ago, Foran said the DNA sciences were not as sensitive as they are today. Now, labs will routinely run the DNA profile through the database before they even have identified a suspect.
Former state Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, collaborated with Jones on the new law.
“I don’t know what kind of effect that it will have,” Meadows said. “(But) it changes the way that we operate in terms of these very serious crimes. I think that’s a good thing.”
Close to home
Meadows, who was East Lansing’s mayor at the time of Brandon’s death, said the city hasn’t forgotten the tragedy from 12 years ago.
“Hopefully the community has learned something about alcohol consumption and altercations and coming together to help solve cases,” East Lansing police Capt. Bill Mitchell said.
Only time will tell if the law will have a large impact on the East Lansing community, Mitchell said, but it could result in bringing justice to cases that fall under the new law.
Even students unfamiliar with Brandon personally are expressing thanks the law passed.
“It is good to know … that this is going to be there for future crimes,” political theory and genetics senior Dylan Miller said. “Hopefully none of those crimes ever happen again.”
Remembering and moving on
Although Shawn D’Annunzio has not heard an “I’m sorry” from her son’s assailant, she is choosing to move on and close the book on her tragic loss.
“Sometimes you don’t even feel like getting out of the bed, but you still you have to block it out because if you don’t, you’ll just become miserable,” she said.
“He would be very, very angry with me if I didn’t live the best life that I could.”
Smith and VanSchooneveld said they are pleased good was able to come out of something so dark.
“It provides justice for the families who suffer from tragedies like this one,” VanSchooneveld said.
Meadows said he hopes the law will never be used, but it is important to have.
“You can never bring Brandon D’Annunzio back, and that’s a tragedy,” Meadows said.
“But we can cure the problem.”