State may give drunk drivers death penalty

N. Carolina is at front of trend that treats vehicular homicide as just plain murder.

Building for more than a decade, the trend toward harsher penalties for drunken drivers who kill is nearing its uppermost extreme: the death penalty.

Here in North Carolina - where the drunk-driving laws are perhaps the toughest in the nation -the state Supreme Court is considering a case that could pave the way for the US justice system's ultimate sanction. The state has already sentenced three drivers to life in prison during the past four years, and the next step - to capital punishment - is not unrealistic, legal experts say.

The Tarheel State's bold efforts have resonated nationwide. From the salt flats of Utah to the piney highways of New Hampshire, judges and juries are handing out the stiffest censures their laws will allow. And increasingly, that means murder convictions.

"As for DWI [driving while intoxicated] cases being treated as murder, there's an overwhelming trend across the country," says James Campbell, the dean of the Center for DUI Defense in Atlanta. But "is [a DWI death penalty] really somewhere that we, as a country, want to go?"

California was the first state to convict a drunken driver of murder - in 1984. But that was second-degree murder. The North Carolina Supreme Court is now considering whether to uphold the first-degree murder convictions of Thomas Richard Jones, who killed two university students in 1996, crashing head-on into their car while intoxicated.

Pleas by the victims' families in part led the Jones jury to sentence him to life in prison, not death. But an affirmation of the murder convictions, analysts say, would let prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty, setting a precedent for future cases.

"We've all been predicting that they'd find a way to execute drunk drivers,and it's now getting to that point," says Lawrence Taylor, a defense lawyer in California.

While North Carolina is the only state pushing for such extreme punishments, other states are making a statement as well.

Earlier this year, a Utah judge sent a repeat drunk driver to jail for as many as 15 years after he rammed into a traffic jam at 70 m.p.h., killing a small baby. And in February, a judge in New Hampshire meted out that state's harshest penalty, sentencing a drunken driver to as many as 20 years in prison for the death of a motorcyclist.

"The trend that we're seeing is that juries are sick and tired of these people having five, six, seven chances to kill or seriously injure someone," says Sheryl Jones, North Carolina state chairwoman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) "And when juries get cases like this, they are deciding that if the only way to keep them off the roads is to put them behind bars for the rest of their life, or a goodly portion of it, that's what they're going to do."

MADD has emerged as a major force in urging lawmakers to enact anti-drunk-driving measures such as DWI roadblocks, lower legal blood-alcohol limits, breathalyzer-style car locks on DWI offenders' vehicles, and on-the-spot license suspensions.

Many of these reforms have been adopted at the federal level, meaning that states must adopt the standards - or face deep cuts in federal highway funds. Moreover, MADD has successfully pushed lawmakers at all levels of government to stiffen punishments.

Here in North Carolina, for instance, one of the organization's most-active state chapters has key seats on the Governor's DWI Task Force, which has written most of the state's DWI laws.

In the courtroom, the current legal tack here has been to paint an offender's past alcohol offenses as "intent to kill" and say the automobile is the weapon.

"We're talking about a deadly assault that resulted in the death of two people," Assistant Attorney General Ike Avery told the Supreme Court in the Jones case. "It's like pointing a gun and closing your eyes and then saying, 'I didn't mean to hit him.' "

Defense attorneys argue that prosecutors are overreaching by going for murder charges, thus inspiring even more public furor when juries decline to convict. Murder requires malice and intention, they say, conditions rarely inherent when a drunk person gets behind the wheel of the family sedan.

"Most DWI defendants are straight-arrow, law-abiding pillars of their communities who most likely support MADD and the police," says Mr. Taylor. "When they get a ticket, or, worse, kill someone, their entire lives are devastated. Are you then going to say that they deserve to be locked up for the rest of their lives?"

Instead, defense lawyers say existing "sentencing enhancements" and secondary manslaughter charges for aggravated DWIs are enough to punish egregious DWI defendants.

With a DWI death-penalty conviction seeming more likely, criticism of MADD's tactics and its influence over lawmakers has sharpened, even though the group has taken no official stand on the death penalty.

For his part, John Jeffries, a law professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says narrowing the definition of a drunken driver, while ratcheting up penalties, is a less reactionary way to go.

In any case, he adds, lawmakers should be cautious, and they should not be swayed by the emotion of the moment.

"MADD and others have made drinking and driving a high-profile issue, and once you draw attention to the nature of the problem, the historical slap on the wrist approach looks pretty silly," says Professor Jeffries.

"The loss in these cases is always tremendous," he says. "But translating that emotional reaction too quickly into punishment is a risky business."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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