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May 12, 2012

Victim calls sentence for deadly DWI offense an "insult to humanity"

Regular readers know of my long-standing criticisms and concerns about what often seem to me to be unduly lenient sentences for drunk driving offenses. These readers will thus not be surprised that this recent local article from North Carolina caught my attention. The piece is headlined "Victim's father: Drunken driver sentences 'an insult to humanity'," and here are excerpts:

Kristie Lee is buried on her family's farm in Wayne County, a constant reminder of a life cut short. The 37-year-old mother of two was leaving a Mount Olive church on Oct. 17, 2010, when a drunken driver hit her car head-on, killing her.

A court found Hermelindo Castro guilty in her death and sentenced him to the maximum penalty under the law -- 3 ½ years in prison. Lee's family members say that sentence is too short. They're not alone. “It is not just an insult to a father, but it's an insult to humanity,” said Doug Jernigan, Lee’s father.

In cases like Lee’s, victims' families often want to blame the judge for what they see as a light sentence that doesn't fit the seriousness of the crime. However, North Carolina judges are bound by strict, structured sentencing guidelines, leaving them with few options. “I just don't believe it's that much different than taking a loaded gun and going into a place of business and firing,” said Kimberly Smith, Lee’s sister.

Wayne County Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones shares their frustration and has taken a rare stand for a judge by speaking out against what he believes are inadequate sentencing guidelines for felony death by vehicle. “Yes, it is frustrating. I'm human. I get frustrated. A lot of people do,” Jones said. “But I've still got to uphold my oath, and that's what I'm going to do to the best of my ability.”

The judge has dealt with many families who have lost loved ones to drunken drivers and says that talking to them “has been the most difficult and heart-wrenching thing I've had to do.” “What are we going to do to protect your children and my children from this kind of thing happening to them?” Jones said.

Sen. Buck Newton, R-Nash, has met with ... families about the possibility of sponsoring legislation to increase the penalties in cases [involving drunk driving deaths]. A similar bill, Senate Bill 393, was proposed last year, but never got out of committee. “Good people get killed. Good people get maimed. Terrible things happen when people drink and drive,” Newton said.

Most drivers who cause a death while drunk are charged with felony death by vehicle. In rare cases, North Carolina district attorneys will charge them with second-degree murder. However, those cases can be difficult to prove because prosecutors need to show an aggravating circumstance, such as a prior drunken driving charge, and prove malice to a jury, which can be a tough sell.

Raleigh defense attorney Karl Knudsen says he believes that, for lawmakers, upping the penalties for drunken driving deaths is more about politics than logic. “Nobody ever lost a vote being too tough on drinking and driving,” Knudsen said, adding that not everyone deserves the harshest penalties. “There are going to be people that are very good people who are going to unintentionally cause a death that they are going to regret for the rest of their lives.”

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers:

May 12, 2012 at 08:48 AM | Permalink


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The sentence is especially poignant given the article right above.

One person gets 20 years simply for firing a warning shot.
The other gets 3.5 years for actual murder.

Posted by: justmeagain | May 12, 2012 1:20:00 PM

I'm not normally one to decry a sentence as too lenient, but this one fits the bill. 3 1/2 years for a DWI manslaughter conviction, in my opinion, unduly depreciates the seriousness of the crime.

Of course, my fear is that the reaction from the legislature and the (understandable) showing of outrage is that now we're going to have 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for DWI manslaughter codified in the forthcoming "Kristie's Law."

And thus, the cycle of injustice continues.

Posted by: Guy | May 12, 2012 3:09:33 PM

Your contents are progressing with days keep it up guys.

Posted by: dui penalties | Sep 10, 2012 6:10:09 AM

it is always sad when someone loses their life in a DWI accident.

Posted by: David | Oct 22, 2012 8:20:05 PM

My 20 year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. The sooner our society stops having pity on the drunk we might see change. Drinking is a Choice, Driving is a Choice.. theose two Choices caused my daughters death. How is that an "accident?" The drunk who killed my child "might" spend 2 yrs behind bars before once again being IN the bars. I hope no one reading this has to ever put together a VIS

Posted by: RMoore | Oct 28, 2012 2:04:12 PM

I can't agree more. I am a Mesa Arizona DUI Attorney and think both justmeagain and RMoore have great points as well. The taking of a life due to drunk driving should be the same as man slaughter at the very least.

Posted by: Naegle Law Firm | May 17, 2013 1:43:27 PM

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