Hit-and-run pregnant victim Chasity Elaine Thornell, mugshot of UT student Curtis Scott Harper on drug charge in 2011
UPDATE: Man charged in hit-and-run that killed 3 released from jail after family posts $300,000 bond, will plead not guilty - By posting bond secured by real estate, zero dollars are required for bail, unless he takes his confessed "trip". Loss of $300,000 bail might be cheaper than paying a defense lawyer with almost no chance to win. His dad Herb Harper Jr is apparently regional VP for sales at Journal Communications that owns 4 radio stations in Knox (Q93.1, Star 102.1, Hot 104.5, 1040 am).
UPDATE: Man accused in fatal hit-and-run had previous DUI arrest - Read grand jury presentment here
“When your company is founded by two Pulitzer Prize winners, it sets the bar pretty high!”
– Bob Schwartzman, President and Publisher, Journal Communications Inc.
Journal Communications Inc. was founded in 1988 by an investor group that included Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley, author of Roots, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Robin Hood.
"Through Journal Broadcast Group, we own and operate 35 radio stations and 13 television stations in 12 states and operate an additional television station under a local marketing agreement."
“Q93 Today’s Continuous Country is proud to welcome Mike Hammond as the newest member to the Journal Broadcast Group family.
PIRATE NEWS ARCHIVES - Senator Carl Kella proved how to get local police, state troopers, Florida drug cops and the TN governor to properly help you delat arrest for fatal hit-and-run DUI until your blood gets hemodialysis
Here's another massmurder "coverup" today by Knox DA, NOT arrested and so far has refused to charge the VIP ("soon to be charged by grand jury presentment").
2004/2012 Ford Expedition / GMC Suburban impounded with GPS tracking, lawyered up night of the killings, no talk to police, police must find credible eyewitnesses to prove he/she drove the vehicle and was drinking alcohol.
Affidavit of Probable Cause for Criminal Complaint in support of search warrant
Comments on KNS complain about KPD's refusal to arrest the hit-and-run suspect despite confessed intention to flee the jurisdiction. Yey KPD immediately arrested a truck driver who accidently hit and killed a THP trooper, after the trucker stopped and pulled the trooper to temporary safety before his patrol car exploded on I40. That trucker has been in jail for months.
DUI homicide is routinely prosecuted as 1st-degree murder DUI hit-and-run (death penalty or life in prison in TN).
This fact of law is censored by all corporate news stories in Knoxville, which also censor the mugshot of the suspect.
Also censored from all Knox news reports is the fact that "Herb Harper", registered owner of the suspect's vehicle, is the name of a retired Nashville commissioner ("judge") on the Tennessee Historical Commission, perhaps to approve zoning for destroying historical sites for his real estate and construction business.
Another censored fact is that the "legal limit" for alcohol is 0.00% BAT in Tennessee, according to Tennessee Highway Patrols' Tennessee Driver License Handbook and Study Guide.
A Curtis Scott Harper was listed as a Spring 2012 graduate in "plant sciences" on the UTK commencement page. Coincidentally, TN leads the nation in sheriffs convicted of dope dealing...
Pirate News is "forever banned" from posting these facts on the KNS website.
Suspected driver identified in fatal hit-and-run
Affidavit: Middle Tennessee man admitted 'having a few drinks'.
The News Sentinel has consistently reported Ms. Thornell was taken to the scene by a family friend who also brought a gallon of gas. The Knoxville Police Department initially reported two women ran out of gas on Washington Pike, but our reporting and interviewing of the family friend revealed that Ms. Thornell was taken to the scene after her friend ran out of gas and asked Ms. Thornell for help. Other media continue to report the two women ran out of gas in front of Mr. Soto's house, apparently because KPD has not corrected its original reporting. In fact, when I asked KPD spokesman Darrell DeBusk about that issue after speaking with the family friend, DeBusk refused to address that nuance."
-Don Jacobs, staff writer
KNOXVILLE, TENN. -- A man has told witnesses that he was the driver in a hit-and-run accident that killed two adults and an unborn child, had been drinking and it was now time "to go on a trip," according to an affidavit filed in the case.
Curtis Scott Harper, in his 20s, has told witnesses that he was driving the 2004 Ford Explorer on May 30 that struck and killed Nelzon A. Soto, 45, and Chasity Elaine Thornell, 24, who was seven months pregnant, according to the affidavit filed by a police investigator.
Thornell's friend, Sarah Tinder, had run out of gas in front of Soto's Washington Pike home, and Soto had put some gas in it for her. Thornell was hugging Soto in thanks when they were hit by a large SUV, which then fled, according to the affidavit.
The victims were dragged along Washington Pike before rolling separately from under the fleeing vehicle.
Later that morning, Harper said to a witness "that he was driving the vehicle when he struck the victims" and admitted "having a few drinks," the affidavit filed by Knoxville Police Department Investigator Patty Tipton states.
A few hours later, Harper said "that he had hit and killed two people and that he thought it was a good idea to go on a trip," according to the affidavit.
Knox County Attorney General Randy Nichols previously has said the young man driving the car is from Middle Tennessee. The 2004 Ford Explorer seized by the Knoxville Police Department is registered to a couple from Franklin whose last name is Harper, according to the affidavit.
The SUV was recovered from a residence on Gratz Street.
The affidavit filed by Tipton accompanied a request for a warrant to search the vehicle for evidence.
Evidence being sought included fingerprints, skin, blood, hair, fragments of glass, and records of the vehicle's GPS device that would show "approximate speed, travel distances, locations, approximate time periods" before and after impact of the fatal accident, the affidavit states.
A Knox County grand jury could hear evidence in the case as early as next week, according to a lawyer hired by Elvira Hercules, widow of Soto.
She has hired Gregory P. Isaacs as a "victim's advocate" and as attorney for a potential civil lawsuit.
Isaacs said Tuesday that Nichols has told him the case could be ready to be presented to a grand jury by sometime next week.
"We are very pleased with this investigation, and how very thorough law enforcement has been in this case," Isaacs said.
Three killed in hit-and-run, suspect captured
June 1st, 2012
Knoxville Police believe they have located the SUV and driver that struck two people and killed them and an unborn child, early Wednesday morning, May 30. The hit-and-run occurred at 4202 Washington Pike near Alice Bell in Knoxville. Knoxville Police are counting the victim’s unborn child as the third person killed.
The suspect has already hired an attorney, according to KPD spokesman Darrell DeBusk. ”Once investigators have completed processing the vehicle, we will seek warrants for his arrest through the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office,” DeBusk said. Until the arrest, the police would not identify him publicly.
According to Knoxville Police, Chasity E. Thornell, 24, of Millertown Pike and another young woman ran out of gas at approximately 1:50 a.m. in front of Nelson Soto’s home at 4202 Washington Pike.
According to Soto’s son, his father had arrived home from working until midnight and was still awake when the two got out of the car and went to Soto’s home and asked for help. Soto, being a Good Samaritan, brought them gas from his lawnmower. After they put the gasoline in the car, the women hugged Soto, thanking him. A silver SUV going eastbound struck them. Soto was killed and Thornell was dragged more than 20 yards, killing her.
The victims were identified as Nelson A. Soto, 45, of 4202 Washington Pike and Chasity E. Thornell, 24, of Millertown Pike who authorities say was approximately seven months pregnant. The baby was also deceased. The second female was not hit by the vehicle.
KPD Spokesperson Darrell DeBusk said that evidence recovered from the scene along with tips from the public led investigators to a residence in north Knoxville where the suspect’s vehicle, a silver 2004 Ford Explorer, was recovered at approximately 2 p.m. that afternoon.
KPD impounded the vehicle and are processing it to gather forensic evidence
Suspect named in Knoxville hit-and-run deaths
Jun 06, 2012
A search warrant affidavit filed by Knoxville police identifies the suspect in last week's hit-and-run accident that killed a Knoxville man and the pregnant woman he was attempting to help.
Curtis Scott Harper, 22, of Franklin and a University of Tennessee student, is accused of striking and killing Nelson A. Soto, 45, and Chasity E. Thornell, 24, early Wednesday as Harper drove down Washington Pike.
Soto was attempting to help Thornell after she ran out of gas on Washington Pike. They both died at the scene.
Thornell's unborn child was also killed. The District Attorney General's Office has already said the unborn baby will be included in the case as a third victim.
Police say Harper fled the scene after hitting Soto and Thornell with his 2004 Ford Explorer.
In the affidavit filed by police, a witness says Harper admitted to being the driver in a hit-and-run accident and that he had been drinking.
Harper said it was now time "to go on a trip," Knoxville Police Department Investigator Patty Tipton says the witness told police.
Police obtained the search warrant after impounding Harper's SUV in order to process it for evidence. It has been retrieved from a residence on Gratz Street.
The affidavit says fingerprints, skin, blood, hair, fragments of glass, and records from the SUV's GPS would be obtained in the search for evidence.
Police have not officially named Harper as the suspect in the case, saying they are waiting for the Knox County Grand Jury to hand down an indictment. That is expected to happen next week.
Harper has not been arrested, but police say they expect to do that as soon as the indictment is issued.
He was arrested in January 2011 in Knox County on a possession of drug paraphernalia charge.
Harper was also arrested in April 2008 in Franklin on a charge of theft under $500. He was accused of shoplifting a pack of Red Bull from a Kroger store. The police report says the drinks were recovered.
Investigation continues into deadly hit & run; still no charges
Jun 4, 2012
Five days after a pregnant woman and a Good Samaritan were killed in a hit and run accident, no charges have been filed.
Early Wednesday morning, Nelson A. Soto, 45, was helping two women who had run out of gas outside his Washington Pike home. He and one of the women, Chasity E. Thornell, 24, who was seven months pregnant, were hit and killed by a driver who left the scene of the accident. That evening, Knoxville Police said they had located the vehicle and the man they believe was driving the truck, but he has not been charged and his name has not been released.
On Monday, KPD spokesperson Darrell DeBusk said the investigation into the deadly hit and run is continuing. He said investigators conducted more interviews this morning, and more interviews are planned. He also said they are processing a tremendous amount of evidence recovered from the scene of the accident and at least one other location.
DeBusk said the department is working closely with the District Attorney General's Office, and they will move forward with charging the suspect when the investigation is complete.
"You're looking at a double, possibly triple homicide, and we have one opportunity to present the evidence. And we're going to make sure that we've dotted the i's, crossed the t's, that everything is in order prior to seeking these charges. We must do that for the victims," said DeBusk.
Officials have not made clear yet whether any charges would be placed against the suspect in relation to the unborn child. If an autopsy confirms the baby could have survived outside the womb, state law allows for the child to be counted as another victim of the crime.
DeBusk said he expects charges to come "soon" in this case.
Who Is Curtis Scott Harper?
June 8th, 2012
A 22-year-old University of Tennessee graduate is scheduled to appear for arraignment in Knox County Criminal Court June 18, after being indicted in connection with a hit-and-run that resulted in the deaths of two adults and an unborn child, a week earlier.
Curtis Scott “Curt” Harper of 3135 Washington Ridge Way, Knoxville, and former resident of Franklin TN surrendered June 6 as he and his attorney James W. Price of Nashville had arranged prior to the grand jury indictment.
According to Knoxville Police, Chasity E. Thornell, 24, of Millertown Pike was helping another young woman, Tinder, who had run out of gas in front of Nelson Soto’s home at 4202 Washington Pike.
Nelson Soto, Sr. had arrived home from working until midnight and was still awake at approximately 1:30 a.m., May 30, when the young women went to his home for help. He took gas from his lawnmower and refueled her car. Tinder hugged Soto, then as Thornell hugged and thanked him, a silver Ford Explorer hit them, killing Soto. Thornell was dragged more than 20 yards, killing her and her unborn child.
A witness reportedly told police he saw a man parked on Washington Pike shortly after the hit-and-run examining front end damage to his vehicle. His description matched Harper, except for long hair and a pony tail. The witness said he called police when he saw the hit and run on the news.
Court documents state that Harper told his roommate he hit the people and he had been drinking, then later admitted he was the hit-and-run driver, and that it would be a good idea to go on a trip.
Harper apparently took the Explorer to a friend’s home on Gratz Road and was later seen driving another vehicle registered to a Gratz Road resident. That is where police discovered Harper’s damaged Explorer about 2 p.m. that afternoon. Police impounded the SUV, but did not arrest Harper. He retained Nashville attorney W. Price Jr.
On June 6, a Knox County Grand Jury indicted Harper on 11 charges, counts of vehicular homicide, three counts of vehicular homicide by intoxication, one count of driving under the influence, one count of tampering with evidence, one count of reckless endangerment, one count of leaving the scene of an accident and one count DUI second offense.
Knoxville Police spokesman Darrell DeBusk sent out a press release to the news media shortly after learning of the indictment saying, “This afternoon investigators with the Knoxville Police Department presented evidence in the Washington Pike hit-and-run investigation to a Knox County Grand Jury. As a result, the Grand Jury issued a true bill for Curtis Scott Harper.” DeBusk also said, ”Harper turned himself in to Knoxville Police Department Investigators at 4:30 p.m. today (June 6). Harper will be processed at the Knox County Detention Facility and held on a $300,000 bond.
Earlier, DeBusk said, “There is a tremendous amount of evidence that must be processed before charges can be filed. We will update the community as soon as the suspect has been charged. All of the information that can be released without jeopardizing the investigation has been shared with the community and the media.”
The indictment came after public outcry on news blogs and inquiries to District Attorney General Randy Nichols and Knoxville Police from the news media asking why, since the suspect was known and had sought counsel, had he not been arrested. However, KPD arrested a black man on a murder charge shortly after an East Knoxville man was killed, the same week.
Under Tennessee law, the owner of a vehicle can be charged with DUI by allowing another person to drive their vehicle while intoxicated.
Attorneys say it is a common practice to seek a grand jury indictment rather than make an arrest and take the case to General Sessions Court, especially in a major case. Seeking a Grand Jury indictment bypasses a preliminary hearing during which would force prosecutors to show evidence earlier in the process. A felony case would likely be bound over to a grand jury anyway, which could further delay a trial.
Harper graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Tennessee last month with a bachelor’s degree in plant science and was on the Dean’s List last year.
The Knoxville Journal learned that Curtis Harper is the grandson of Herbert Harper, a North Carolina native who a retired executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission where he served for 37 years, a charter board member and served in various officer positions with the Carter House, Carnton Plantation and Williamson County Heritage Foundation. Herbert Harper was a member and board member of numerous state and national historical organizations, and served as the State Preservation Deputy and Officer representing the State of Tennessee in Washington, D.C.
Curtis Scott Harper has had at least four previous brushes with the law as an adult. Juvenile records are sealed.
In January 2008, Harper appeared in court on a marijuana possession charge. After pleading guilty and while serving probation, in May, he was charged with theft from a Franklin Kroger Supermarket which violated his probation. The result was 48 hours in jail and a $50 fine.
In April 2009, Harper pleaded guilty to DUI in Asheville, NC. He was sentenced to 48 hours in jail and fined. An additional reckless driving charge was dismissed in the plea arrangement.
Harper was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia in January 2011 but the charge was later dismissed.
Harper remained in Knox County Jail under $300,000 bond, but his attorney says he will move to get the bond reduced.
Nashville Criminal Attorney Explains: Tennessee Murder Laws
December 6, 2010
“Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea” is a latin phrase which translated means “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty”. In other words, to be guilty of a crime there must be some level of mental culpability (ie: intentional, reckless, negligent). An individual’s action is referred to as the ‘actus rea’ and the mental state of the actor referred to as the ‘mens rea’. You cannot be found guilty of a crime unless the requisite mental culpability has been established. There are some exceptions for strict liability acts, but we’ll discuss that at another time. This legal principle is the basis for the varying degrees of crimes – including murder. The result of any killing is the same – an individual or individuals are dead. Whether and how we should punish those responsible for the killing is determined by the different degrees of homicide. The varying degrees of murder are probably the most well-known in our society. The terminology is different from state to state and the purpose of this blog is to familiarize you with the murder or homicide statute in Tennessee.
Criminal Homicide in Tennessee is the unlawful killing of another person which may be First (1st) degree murder, Second (2nd) degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide or vehicular homicide.
First (1st) Degree Murder in Tennessee is a Felony and includes:
1) The premeditated and intentional killing of another, or
2) The killing of another while committing a dangerous felony (more specifically: act of terrorism, arson, rape, burglary, theft, kidnapping, aggravated child abuse, aggravated child neglect, rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child, or aircraft piracy), or
3) The killing as a result of the placement from a bomb or other destructive device
If convicted of First Degree Murder, the possible sentences include death, life without the possibility of parole or life (with the possibility of parole).
Second Degree Murder in Tennessee is:
1) The knowing killing of another; or
2) Any death resulting from unlawful distribution of Schedule I or II drugs if the drugs cause the death.
A conviction of Second (2nd) Degree Murder in Tennessee is a Class A Felony.
Voluntary Manslaughter in Tennessee is the killing in the heat of passion with sufficient provocation to cause a reasonable person to behave in an irrational manner.
Voluntary Manslaughter is a Class D Felony in Tennessee.
Reckless Homicide in Tennessee is simply, the reckless killing of another and is a Class D Felony. It provides for a lower standard of mental culpability, or mens rea. Reckless is conduct whereby the actor does not desire harmful consequence but foresees (or should foresee) the possibility and consciously takes the risk.
Reckless Homicide is a Class E Felony in Tennessee.
Criminally Negligent Homicide in Tennessee is criminally negligent conduct that results in death. For there to be criminal negligence, there must be “a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the accused person’s standpoint.” Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-11-302(d) (2003). Furthermore, “the accused must know, or should know, that his or her conduct, or the result of that conduct, will imperil the life of another given the circumstances that exist when the conduct takes place.” State v. Adams, 916 S.W.2d 471, 474 (Tenn.Crim.App.1995). It is also necessary that in addition to being criminally negligent, the defendant’s conduct be the proximate cause of the ensuing death. See State v. Farner, 66 S.W.3d 188, 199 (Tenn.2001). In other words, the victim’s death needs to be the natural and probable result of the defendant’s unlawful conduct. Id. At 203. However, the defendant’s actions “need not be the sole or immediate cause of the victim’s death.” Id. (citing Letner v. State, 156 Tenn. 68, 299 S.W. 1049, 1051 (1927)). If the direct cause of the death is an act of the victim or third party, the defendant may still be liable if the act of the victim or third party is a natural and probable result of the defendant’s conduct. See Letner, 299 S.W. at 1051 (upholding a conviction where the defendant shot into the river near a small boat which so frightened the deceased that he jumped overboard and was drowned); Cole v. State, 512 S.W.2d 598 (Tenn.Crim.App.1974) (upholding a conviction of defendant who was drag-racing a second automobile and that second automobile collided with the victim’s car, killing the victim).
Criminally Negligent Homicide in Tennessee is a Class E Felony.
Vehicular Homicide in Tennessee is the reckless killing of another with an automobile, airplane, motorboat or other motor vehicle, due to one of the following:
- Conduct creating a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to a person;
- The driver’s intoxication, as set forth in the Tennessee DUI law;
- Due to drag racing;
- The driver’s conduct in a posted construction zone where the person killed was an employee of the Tennessee department of transportation or a highway construction worker.
A vehicular homicide conviction in Tennessee is a Class B, C, or D Felony and carries with any sentence a mandatory driver’s license revocation of three (3) to ten (10) years.
If you have been charged with any Tennessee criminal offense you should immediately consult with a criminal attorney. Both misdemeanor and felony convictions may carry other consequences to which you need to be fully aware prior to discussing any plea agreement. Have a criminal lawyer review your case, determine what defenses you may have and discuss whether to take your case to trial or attempt to negotiate a plea agreement.
Our firm, with a former Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County prosecutor on staff has experience handling and successfully trying thousands of criminal cases ranging from DUI’s to homicide. Contact us today at (615) 829 – 8259.
Lesser Included DEfenses in TN
The Death Penalty for DUI
By Lawrence Taylor, attorney at law
November 6th, 2004
Yes, the death penalty. In a drunk driving case. In these United States. For murder…… No, not involuntary manslaughter. Not vehicular homicide. Murder. And first-degree murder. As in pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger. MADD has been so successful in their political pressure campaigns that they’ve actually gotten some courts and legislatures to create a new type of crime: DUI murder.
Wait a minute, you say. I thought you had to INTEND to kill a person before it’s murder. You have to "premeditate" and that kind of thing, right? Well, yes and no. Each state is a little different, of course, but most follow similar laws. And those laws generally break a homicide ("the killing of another human being") into different categories. The first is excusable homicide — where, because of self-defense or other justification, the death is not considered a crime. Next is "manslaughter" — basically, a killing that is not murder. There are usually two kinds of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is sometimes called a killing in the "heat of passion"; you lacked the time or ability to reflect on the act. Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional homicide: you didn’t mean to do it, but you caused a death by your negligence or recklessness.
When a drunk driver causes an accident in which someone is killed, he is usually going to be facing involuntary manslaughter charges. Some states use different terms, such as "vehicular manslaughter" or "vehicular homicide". Either way, the death was unintentional, but it was caused by the driver’s negligent or reckless conduct.
And then there’s murder. That’s what you see on TV and read about in the papers: someone plans to kill someone else and, in cold blood, takes his life. But just to complicate things, in most states there are two kinds of murder: first degree and second degree. Murder in the first degree usually requires meaningful premeditation: you thought about it, planned it, carried it out. Second degree murder only requires a mental state known as "malice". What is malice? Well, usually it means the intent to kill someone: you intended to kill that person, but it may have happened so quickly that you never really thought it out. Intent, but no premediation.
So where does DUI fit into all of this?
It seems pretty obvious that it belongs in the "involuntary manslaughter" category — an unintentional accident but with negligence/recklessness. However…. This idea of "malice" is pretty vague. Very vague. Actually, it can pretty much mean whatever you want. Perfect, really, for a group like MADD looking for new ways to "get tough " on drunk drivers.
A prosecutor in California came up with a bright idea a few years ago. He simply ignored the vehicular manslaughter statute and charged a drunk driver with second-degree murder. And, DUI being a pretty unpopular crime, actually managed to convict him. The defendant appealed, saying the prosecution can’t just invent new crimes: he has to charge the offense specified by the legislature. The California Supreme Court disagreed, saying that he could be charged and convicted of murder if he acted with "malice" — that is, if he "does an act with a high probability that it will result in death and does it with a base antisocial motive and with a wanton disregard for human life".
Base antisocial motive? What’s that? The Court tried to clarify:
"One who willfully consumes alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication, knowing that he must operate a motor vehicle, thereby combining sharply impaired physical and mental facilities with a vehicle capable of great force and speed, reasonably may be held to exhibit a conscious disregard of the safety of others." People v. Watson, 30 Cal. 3d 290 (1981)
Well, the problem is that the Court was pretty much describing ANY drunk driver. Recognizing that this opened the gates a bit wide, the courts have tried to limit over-zealous prosecutors by requiring a more serious type of malice. They came up with "conscious indifference": A drunk driver can be charged with murder if his state of mind was, "I know my conduct is dangerous to others, but I don’t care if someone is hurt or killed." Still pretty vague. Doesn’t alcohol itself cause indifference? And how do you know what’s in someone’s head when he’s drunk? Well, it turns out that you can now prove malice if you can show that the defendant knew drinking and driving could be dangerous. Of course, everyone knows that, right?
So where does that leave us? Any DUI defendant who knows drunk driving is dangerous can be charged with murder?
Apparently so. In People v. Murray, 275 Cal.Rptr. 498 (1990), the appellate court upheld a DUI murder conviction where the prosecution proved he had attended a DUI education class and told someone he had learned a lot from it. This was enough to show that he was aware that drunk driving was dangerous and so he acted with "malice". And, thus, murder.
With this kind of legal reasoning, it’s only a matter of time before we’re looking at the death penalty in a drunk driving case, right? Well, on April 8, 1997, a jury in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, came back with a first degree murder conviction in a DUI case involving a traffic accident with two deaths. They recommended a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The prosecutor had asked for the death penalty.
Drunk Driving Could Lead to Life in Prison
January 28, 1998
RALEIGH — Drunk driving used to mean just losing your license. Now, in some cases, it can lead to life in prison. As public awareness of the problem increases, so do the penalties.
Last May -- for the first time ever -- a North Carolina man was convicted of first-degree murder in a drunk driving death. Now, more and more drunk drivers who kill are being charged with first and second-degree murder.
The challenge here is that the prosecutor must prove the driver acted maliciously. It's a challenge that police and prosecutors are now willing to meet.
Mario Hernandez didn't use a gun, a knife, or his hands, but still he's charged with second-degree murder. Police say that what he did do was get behind the wheel drunk and kill 81-year-old William Rosenthal. "It's sort of difficult for someone to envision charging someone with murder for doing something like drinking that we do socially everyday."
Cary police say this is the first time they have charged someone with murder in a drunk driving death. But, Hernandez has a record of drunk driving and Lt. Doug Scott says that the charge fits.
Listen toauorreal audiofiles. "You know you have been drinking. It's a willful, intentional act to get behind the wheel, that's malice in itself."
Investigators say Hernandez's blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, when the accident happened here at this intersection in Cary. They say that this along with his record make a strong case for a murder charge.
Last year, Thomas Jones became the first person in North Carolina to be convicted of first-degree murder in a drunk driving case. He was sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of two Wake Forest students.
Karyn Brown of Mothers Against Drunk Driving say this case opened the door to charging drunk drivers with murder.
Listen toauorreal audiofiles. "DWI is a violent crime, and people that commit DWI need to be treated like violent criminals."
A recent Sampson County case is more proof. Police say David Gray was drunk when he hit and killed a teenage girl. Two weeks ago he was charged with second-degree murder.
No Death Sentence For Drunken Driver In Student Killings
By KEVIN SACK
Published: May 07, 1997
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A jury here spared a man from the death penalty today and sentenced him instead to life in prison without parole in the first case that has produced first-degree murder convictions for homicides caused by impaired driving.
The jury of six men and six women spent just over an hour this afternoon deliberating whether to impose the death penalty or life in prison without parole on Thomas R. Jones. The quick judgment came after the jurors found none of the aggravating factors that were legally required to be present before the death penalty could be imposed.
Still, prosecutors here said they believed that the sentence is the toughest ever handed down in a murder case involving impaired driving. Mr. Jones had taken painkillers and drunk beer before the accident. Similar cases are pending here in Winston-Salem, in Durham, N.C., and in Jamestown, Ky.
The jury here in Forsyth County Superior Court convicted Mr. Jones on Friday of two counts of first-degree murder and other charges linked to a 1996 crash that killed two Wake Forest University students and injured four others.
''I think this is one of those rare cases of first-degree murder that could have a general deterrent effect,'' said Vincent F. Rabil, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Mr. Jones. ''I think this will make everyone stop at that first drink or the second one.''
In North Carolina, a sentence of life without parole can be misleading. It allows a convict who has served 25 years to petition a judge for a review hearing, Mr. Rabil said. That judge can then recommend commutation of the rest of the sentence to the Governor, who can grant the inmate's release from prison.
Judge William H. Freeman sentenced Mr. Jones today to two life terms without parole, to be served concurrently, as well as an additional 210 days in prison for his convictions for misdemeanor assault and driving under the influence.
Mr. Jones's lawyers, David B. Freedman and Carroll L. Teeter, said they had a strong case for appealing their client's convictions.
Mr. Freedman said he planned to attack Mr. Rabil's novel legal theory, which held that jurors could convict Mr. Jones of first-degree murder without finding that he had had a specific intent to kill. Instead, prosecutors had argued that the jury only had to find that Mr. Jones acted out of culpable negligence, as shown by his long history of mixing alcohol with prescription drugs and then climbing behind the wheel.
Mr. Jones has been convicted twice for driving under the influence, and has yet to be tried on the same charges in another incident.
During the trial, Mr. Jones testified that on the day of the crash, he had taken multiple doses of Xanax, a prescription tranquilizer, and Fioricet, a narcotic, and had consumed four beers. Blood tests also found traces of Percocet, another painkiller, in his system.
A blood test taken 90 minutes after the wreck showed that Mr. Jones's blood alcohol level was 0.051, under the state's legal intoxication level of 0.08. But the tests indicated that Mr. Jones's consumption of the pills and alcohol had so impaired his judgment and reaction time that he should not have been driving.
Just before the wreck, Mr. Jones had bumped another car twice, hit a curb and nearly flipped over. Then he turned onto a two-lane road and veered across the center line. Seeing Mr. Jones's car coming toward her car, Fiona Penney, a Wake Forest student, tried to avoid him by making a left turn onto a side street. But before Ms. Penney could complete the turn, Mr. Jones swerved back into his lane and hit the other car broadside at an estimated speed of 45 to 52 miles an hour.
Two 19-year-old passengers -- Maia Witzl, of Arlington, Tex., and Julie M. Hansen, of Rockville, Md. -- were killed; four other women in the car were injured, some seriously.
The parents of Ms. Witzl and Ms. Hansen did not support the death penalty for Mr. Jones and said today that they were relieved that the trial had ended and that Mr. Jones would have to live with his guilt.
The Witzls and Hansens sat side-by-side in the courtroom's front row today. The Witzls dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs as Mr. Rabil made his final statement to the jury.
''What is the difference between Mr. Jones's behavior on Sept. 4 and playing Russian roulette?'' he asked, saying the defendant had ''an evil character.''
Mr. Teeter, the defense lawyer, filled his closing argument with biblical references about mercy and forgiveness. ''The devil lurking in this alcohol and in these pills would not turn loose of him,'' Mr. Teeter said of Mr. Jones's addictions.
He also argued that the punishment should fit the crime, saying, ''We're not talking about a man taking an axe and chopping up bodies out here,'' he said.
Mr. Freedman, the other defense lawyer, stressed that there had been ''no premeditation, deliberation or specific intent to kill.'' He added: ''This is a court of law. We're not about sending messages.''
The jurors' deliberations ended after they found no evidence of the two aggravating factors that Mr. Rabil had suggested: that Mr. Jones used his car as a ''weapon of mass destruction'' and that he engaged in ''a course of violent conduct.''
Groups that campaign against drunk driving have yet to form a united opinion about the pursuit of the death penalty in such cases. A spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving has said that the organization had not taken a position on the issue. But Ann S. Esch, a spokeswoman for North Carolinians Against Intoxicated Drivers, said most members of her group supported the death penalty.
''I think it would reflect the feeling of this community that this is an inexcusable crime committed against our fellow man and we cannot tolerate it any longer,'' she said.
Some legal authorities predicted that it will be difficult for juries to hand down death sentences for cases in which drivers were under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
''We give the death penalty to people we're afraid of, to people that are different from us,'' said Andrew Leipold, a visiting professor of law at Duke University. ''And drunk drivers aren't, because they're our neighbors, or they're us.''
Correction: May 8, 1997, Thursday Articles yesterday and on Tuesday about the case of Thomas Richard Jones, the North Carolina man who was convicted of first-degree murder for a homicide caused by impaired driving, referred imprecisely to precedents. The case -- involving the deaths of two students at Wake Forest University -- was not clearly the first on record. In 1976, a jury in Montgomery, Ala., convicted Heflin Mack Lankford of first-degree murder for killing a teen-ager in a crash while driving drunk. Like Mr. Jones, Mr. Lankford was sentenced to life.
Drunk driver in landmark murder case released from prison
April 17, 2012
In a landmark case that went before the North Carolina Supreme Court, a man who was convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of two Wake Forest University students has been released from prison. The man was initially convicted on first-degree murder charges in the 1997 trial, which was the first time anyone in North Carolina had been convicted of first-degree murder for driving while impaired. That conviction was later overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2000, and a new trial was ordered.
The criminal charges were the result of a September 1996 car accident that killed the two college students. The man had been drinking and was on prescription drugs at the time of the crash. He had been involved in seven wrecks since 1975, including two earlier crashes that same night, and had 20 convictions for traffic violations, which included driving while intoxicated.
In his second trial in 2003, the man pled guilty to second-degree murder and received a 15- to 18-year prison sentence. At that point he had already served 6 ½ years in prison. The now 54-year-old man spent a total of 15 years in prison and was released with probation last week. The case was highly publicized nationally and resulted in tougher drunk driving laws across the country, including North Carolina.
Three other students were seriously injured in the car crash. Students were motivated to lobby legislatures to toughen the state's drunk driving laws. North Carolina's then-Governor signed the law that increased penalties for drunk drivers by requiring a minimum of 1 year in prison for habitual offenders, and an automatic 30-day suspension of a driver's licenses for those charged with a DWI.
The man could have his driver's license reinstated after his nine month probationary period ends, should the North Carolina Department of Motor vehicles choose to do so. This case clearly highlights the immense impact drunk drivers have on our lives every day. From car accidents causing serious injuries and property damages to the senseless deaths of our family and friends, the impact of drunk driving on society is enormous.
Source: Winston-Salem Journal, "Figure in landmark impaired-driving case leaves prison today," Michael Hewlett, April 11, 2012