With one bad decision on a February night in 2006, Jessica Rasdall's life changed forever. She and her best friend, Laura Gorman, both 18 at the time, had spent the night dancing and drinking. At 3 a.m., the two got in a car, with Jessica at the wheel, and headed home. They never made it.
"I never blamed it on anybody else," Rasdall told Elizabeth Vargas of "20/20" before she was sent to prison last year. "I had a big court hearing. I got up and I said, 'I drank, I drove and I killed my best friend.'"
Not far that early morning from Gorman's dorm room at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., the car carrying the teens veered off the road and struck a tree. Gorman was killed by blunt-force trauma to the head. Rasdall, now 22, recovered physically but, three years after the crash, she remains emotionally haunted by the images of that fatal night.
Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
But for Rasdall and teens like her, drunken driving is not only a statistic but the sobering and deadly reality that, in an instant, their reckless behavior took the lives of other human beings.
For Part 1 of Rasdall's story, click HERE.
Teen Drunken Driving: Therapy Leads to Plan
As she awaited trial on charges of DUI-manslaughter after the fatal accident, Rasdall spent most days in her bedroom, surrounded by photographs of the friend whose life she had ended. On her nightstand were daily medications: anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sleeping pills.
She rarely went out, she told Vargas, and when she did, her parents chauffeured her everywhere, usually to college classes at the University of South Florida. She says she hasn't driven or touched a drop of alcohol since the night of the crash.
Rasdall's therapist, Dr. Kim Costello, said Rasdall suffers not only from post-traumatic stress disorder but also from one of the worst cases of survivor's guilt that she has ever diagnosed. As part of Rasdall's therapy and recovery, the two came up with a plan for her to share her story through public speaking, warning others of the dangers of drunken driving.
For two years, as her criminal case lingered, Rasdall gave speech after speech in schools and community centers, eventually talking to more than 15,000 people. "I began to see Jessica evolve and come back out of her shell," Costello told "20/20." "You can't be insincere and touch this many people. She's changing lives."
Rasdall's speeches also generated a lot of publicity and goodwill, the kind that could influence a judge and a jury. But the victim's parents, Rod and Helen Gorman, and their supporters, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, were convinced the speeches were a charade.
"Jessica's doing absolutely everything she can to mitigate her sentence," said the prosecutor in the case, Assistant State Attorney Rohom Khonsari. "And the Gormans absolutely feel that this is something that's calculated, that it's not genuine."
Teen Drunken Driving Death: 'I Have Enough Guilt'
Rasdall disagreed. "I have enough guilt as it is, every day, just waking up knowing that I'm alive and she isn't," she told Vargas last year. "I don't think that any good can come to the community from me sitting in prison."
For two-and-a-half years, the case dragged on through endless motions and delays. Rasdall's lawyer offered various plea deals that included no prison time, house arrest or boot camp. All were rejected by prosecutors on behalf of the Gormans.
The Rasdalls, in turn, sent thousands of letters of support for their daughter to the judge and suggested that there were mitigating circumstances that caused the crash. They conceded that their daughter's blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit, but they questioned why the car veered off the road, offering theories that another driver might have hit the young women from behind. They blamed the club where the pair had been partying for allegedly serving alcohol to teens.
One turning point in the case came when investigators found an identification card in Rasdall's car.
The card belonged to Charlotte Lambert, then a 22-year-old model who worked with Rasdall and Gorman at a local Hooters restaurant. Lambert told investigators that several months before the fatal crash, Rasdall had been asking for an I.D. from someone 21 or older. Lambert admitted that she gave Rasdall her duplicate I.D. card.
A second fake I.D. was also found in the car, raising the possibility that Rasdall and Gorman both used false I.D.s to get into the bar. The discovery undermined Rasdall's claim that a bar employee knowingly served drinks to minors.
And that wasn't all that Khonsari, the prosecutor, discovered. At a pre-trial hearing, under threat of prosecution, he put a reluctant Lambert on the stand to testify about an earlier night when she and Jessica were out on the town.
Lambert said she never thought of Rasdall as a party girl. But one night after work, a few months before the fatal accident, she and Rasdall were out on the town.
"It was a stupid night," Lambert told Vargas. "Obviously, out of control and we both drank too much. The bartenders just kept putting drink after drink after drink on the table."
On the witness stand, Lambert was in tears as she recalled how Rasdall vomited on herself as she drove home and how she demanded that Rasdall pull the car over.
Khonsari said, "This establishes that this wasn't the first time this had happened."
When asked how she felt about the dangerous position she was in that night, Lambert said she took full responsibility for getting in the car and said that Gorman made a fatal decision to drive home with Rasdall.
She doesn't think Rasdall belongs behind bars. "Everybody makes their own decisions," Lambert said of Gorman.
Teen Drunken Driving Death: Elusive Justice
On the same subject, Rasdall told Vargas last year, "Me going to prison isn't going to bring Laura back. The only thing it's going to do is stop me from talking to people about it. And I can save a life, not end one."
What would Gorman think is justice? Khonsari said it's impossible to answer that question. But, incredibly, even the man charged with prosecuting Rasdall, and possibly sending her to prison, said he was torn.
"If my best friend was in the driver's seat and killed me? I wouldn't want him to go to prison," Khonsari conceded. "There's no way I'd want him to spend one second in prison."
In May of last year, Jessica Rasdall left home for another pre-trial hearing. She had a feeling she wasn't coming back. "I told the judge, 'I am ready,'" she said in a recent prison interview, nine months after her incarceration began. "'I can't keep doing this. I am ready.'"
Rasdall asked for leniency, reminding the judge of all her good work. In exchange for a guilty plea, the judge gave his bottom line: Rasdall would have to do a minimum of 4 years in prison, or risk doing 10 to 15 if she was convicted by a jury.
Rasdall said she felt relief when she decided to take the plea deal. The Gormans were reportedly furious at the reduced sentence but, three years after the crash that killed their daughter Laura, the case was finally over.
Today, Rasdall is an inmate at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Fla., which was the state's first prison for women.
"I never feel sorry for myself," she said from prison. "I don't deserve to feel sorry for myself. "
By all accounts, Rasdall is a model prisoner, helping less fortunate inmates to earn their GEDs. She says she has stopped taking her medications, which has allowed her to reflect and finally grieve for the friend she killed on Interstate 275.
Prosecutor Khonsari said, "I hate all these cases. Most of them involved people with zero criminal record, who made a horrible, horrible mistake."
For the Gorman family, the suffering will never end. For Rasdall, her life will go on and, she insists, so will her mission to warn others not to drink and drive.
"Laura and I were 18 years old," Rasdall said from prison. "We thought we were invincible and nothing could ever happen to us, and we made those choices, we took those risks, we paid the consequences. And Laura paid the ultimate consequence.
"And I am going to wake up every day for the rest of my life knowing I killed my best friend. I would take it all back if I could. Everything."