Drunken Driving Crash Shattered Teen's Life

In prison interview, Jessica Rasdall describes deep pain, hope for redemption.

ByABC News
June 1, 2009, 12:50 PM

June 2, 2009 -- They were best friends, both 18, college freshmen, co-workers. Inseparable since kindergarten, Jessica Rasdall and Laura Gorman loved to go out, loved to dance, to have fun. The good times might have lasted a lifetime, but for the tragedy that unfolded on a Florida highway early one February morning in 2006.

It started with a trip to a club. There were drinks, and a walk to the car, with Rasdall taking the wheel. Less than an hour later, Gorman was dead. And her best friend would be charged with killing her.

Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.

On average, a drunken driver kills someone every 40 minutes in the United States. That's 36 deaths daily and more than 13,000 annually. The highway deaths are so frequent they can go unnoticed, until one hits close to home.

"My name is Jessica Rasdall, and on Feb. 25, 2006, I killed my best friend," Rasdall, now 22, tells a crowd of high school students packed into a football stadium under a brilliant blue Tampa, Fla., sky.

"Laura Ann Gorman died in the passenger seat of my car ..."

In the last three years, Rasdall has confessed her crime to more than 15,000 people, both young and old, in a speech that never varies, describing the minute details of that tragic night. At the end she plays a slideshow tribute to her dead friend, set to the song "Second Chances" by Michelle Branch.

"I wish I could take her place that night," Rasdall told Elizabeth Vargas of "20/20" in an interview before she went to prison. "I would give anything to have been the one in the passenger seat that night ... Absolutely. No questions asked. ... I would give anything to just bring her back."

Rasdall's story is a cautionary tale of love and loss, of overwhelming regret and remorse. Even as she tries to atone for what happened, she faces accusations of hypocrisy from the Gorman family, who say that her public speaking is merely an attempt to win leniency from the courts. She also has been accused of a pattern of dangerous behavior, of having mixed alcohol and driving in the past.

But most of all, there is the hard reality that she must wake up to each morning. Her best friend is gone, and she is to blame.

There is a sign along Interstate 275 in west central Florida -- near St. Petersburg, where the friends grew up -- in memory of Laura Gorman. It marks the spot where she died. Rasdall said she often visits the crash site and reflects on what might have been.

"It still almost [doesn't] seem real to me that a car accident ... that one night ... in the blink of an eye, everything changed," she said.

The two met in kindergarten. As they blossomed into young women, they dyed each other's hair, experimented with makeup. They even began working at the same restaurant, a local Hooters.

"We were complete opposites but so much alike," said Rasdall, who even now talks about her dead friend in the present tense. "I was the short one, she's the tall one. I was the brunette, she's the blond. You couldn't help but be happy and smile when you're with her."

On the night of Feb. 26, 2006, the two worked their usual shift at Hooters. They headed back to Laura's dorm at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. And then they decided to go out dancing.