Drunk Drivers on Death Row?

North Carolina Supreme Court Considers Landmark Case

According to court documents, on Sept. 4, 1996, Jones had been driving after drinking beer and taking prescription painkillers when he rammed into another vehicle. Jones then allegedly fled the scene at high speed, drove on the wrong side of the road and hit the car carrying the students.

Two young women died in the crash – Maia Witzl and Julie Hansen, both 19 – and four others were injured, three seriously. Prosecutors charged Jones with three counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and two counts of first-degree murder.

The “deadly weapon” was Jones’ car.

The case was prosecuted under the state’s felony murder rule, which mandates that if you commit a felony using a deadly weapon and somebody dies, you can be convicted of first-degree murder and eligible for the death penalty.

Because the killings occurred during the felonies – the assaults with a deadly weapon – the felony murder rule should apply, the state argues.

But Jones’ lawyer, David Freedman, argues that since Jones had no intention of killing his victims, the felony murder rule should not apply to him. The state argues that intent was established by Jones’ purposefully reckless and criminally negligent actions.

“If the defendant wishes to create a special exemption for drunks who commit felony murder,” the state’s court brief reads, “he should seek redress at the Legislature, not this Court.”

Punishment for homicides resulting from drunken driving has grown more severe over the last two decades. North Carolina prosecutors say the shift represents a growing public disgust with drunken driving.

Despite the grim details of the crash and Jones’ prior DUI conviction and pending DUI charge, Freedman says the penalty is too severe. But worse, Freedman says, if the conviction is upheld, the felony murder rule could be applied to any motorist who intentionally violates a safety standard and unintentionally kills in the process.

“The danger is when you create a law like this, it opens Pandora’s box,” Freedman said. “The possibilities for abuse are huge, because you could apply it to almost any accident case.”

Regardless of the state Supreme Court’s decision, the legislature could rework the law. Freedman says that if he loses this round, he could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but thinks the high court won’t likely agree to hear such a case until an impaired motorist is sentenced to death. If Jones does lose this appeal, Freedman says, it is only a matter of time before a drunken driver lands on death row.

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