15 Shots Killed Shelby Allen
What's perhaps more shocking is that the 17-year-old drank them at a friend's house, while the parents were home. Here, how her mom is fighting to make sure no other child dies this way
The Legal Loophole
Shelby's death compelled Debbie Allen to research what had killed her. "I learned that the party culture had drastically changed since I partied as a teen," she explains. "Kids are drinking differently, and aren't being taught that the way they are drinking can kill them." But what shocked Debbie the most was learning that more and more parents were participating in this dangerous drinking culture by allowing minors to have access to alcohol. Says Debbie: "Shelby lied to us about her whereabouts so she could go to a house where she could 'have fun' experimenting with illegal drinking. She made poor choices, but these poor choices should not have led to her death. Shelby should have known better...we all should have. I get it now."
Increasingly, parents who "get" the dangers of underage drinking have had it with parents who don't. Twenty-seven states now have social-host laws on the books. Richard Campbell, a trial lawyer with expertise in social-host cases, knows just how wrong teen drinking can go. He cites a case in Easthampton, MA, in 2007, in which Alexis Garcia, 15, and her best friend shared a bottle of vodka that the pal had received from her dad as a gift. After the two downed it, Lexi went upstairs to take a shower and sober up. She was found facedown in the tub, drowned. He recalls 17-year-old Meaghan Duggan, who, while drinking at a house party in the basement of a close friend's North Andover, MA, home, tripped on a step, suffered a skull fracture, and died as intoxicated underage partiers repeatedly stepped over her body, while the father of the household was fully aware of the underage drinking going on.
As shocking as these cases are, the state often can't file criminal charges, which could lead to jail sentences, against the hosts. Campbell calls civil action, which may provide financial compensation, "the only recourse parents who have lost a child may have. But most of my clients who seek civil damages do so not for the money - most don't care if they ever see a penny. They do it to send a message, to deter other parents who are tempted to throw these kinds of 'safe' drinking parties."
For the Allen family, District Attorney Benito wanted to seek justice for what had unfolded late that December night. He took Shelby's case to a grand jury, and their stance was clear: Go after the parents in the host family. "But legally I couldn't, because by verbalizing the order not to drink (even though alcohol was easily accessible), by making the 911 call, by performing CPR, and also by not being aware of how severe Shelby's condition was, [the parents] were not legally responsible for what occurred," Benito says. "Initially I thought I could not file charges against Jane. But the cell phone texting indicated clearly that she was present the entire time Shelby was dying. And that Shelby died as a direct result of this girl's failure to provide aid." In the legal system, finding failure to provide aid is based on what is called "creating a duty," or responsibility - in this situation, that means providing the illegal substance (liquor) to the point that another person becomes completely at one's mercy: "As a result, in criminal court, you then have the responsibility to at least seek help on this person's behalf," Benito adds.