In recent years it has become increasingly fashionable and politically advantageous to adopt MADD’s "War on Drunk Driving" — to ratchet up the Draconian penalties while at the same time gradually eliminating inconvenient laws and constitutional safeguards.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this approach has been the relatively recent phenomenon of politically ambitious prosecutors charging suspects in DUI cases involving a fatality not with manslaughter but with murder.
The following are excerpts from a CBS "60 Minutes" special aired three days ago. The case involved a 24-year-old man, Martin Heidgen, who was driving with a high blood-alcohol level when he hit a limousine, killing the driver and a 7-year-old girl. He had no prior record.
DWI Deaths: Is It Murder?
(CBS) Drunk driving kills more than 13,000 Americans a year – that’s one every 39 minutes. Authorities call it an epidemic. They say that despite all the publicity, all the education campaigns, and all the advertising over the past decade, the number of drunk-driving fatalities has not gone down.
Some prosecutors have started taking a different approach to the problem, getting so tough on drunk drivers who kill people that the penalties they exact were unheard of in the past.
As correspondent Bob Simon reports, one of these pioneers is Kathleen Rice, district attorney of Nassau County, New York. She believes that if you want to stop drunk driving, you have to treat it as a serious crime with serious jail time…
Getting tough on drunk drivers has been the centerpiece of her platform since she was elected in 2005. This case showed why.
"A 7-year-old girl is beheaded. The driver of the car is crushed to death. I think too many people think about drunk driving crashes, or accidents as people like to call them, as, you know, driving off the road. Or rolling through a red light. These crimes are incredibly violent," Rice says…
Katie’s funeral attracted more than 1,000 people. Her death, along with that of Stanley Rabinowitz, became rallying points for the campaign to crack down on drunk driving.
Martin Heidgen was arrested and charged not with manslaughter – meaning accidental killing, as is customary in drunk driving fatalities – but with the more severe charge of murder. That hardly ever happens in America.
Asked why Heidgen fit as a murder case, Rice says, "The statute under which he was charged required us to prove that through his actions, he had a completely depraved indifference to human life."
"His actions made the deaths of Katie Flynn and Stanley Rabinowitz inevitable. It was as inevitable as taking a gun and firing it at an individual who’s standing five feet away from you," Rice says.
She says she really believes that.
Heidgen hired lawyer Steven Lamagna to defend him.
Lamagna’s reaction when he heard his client was being charged with murder? "I could recall saying to myself, ‘They’re not going there. They’re not charging a vehicular homicide with murder, with a life sentence, as if he’s Jeffrey Dahmer or John Gotti.’ Murder in our society, and in every state in the union, is relegated to the most dangerous, cold-blooded killers."
Not for young men like Martin Heidgen, he says, a recent college graduate who had no previous convictions of any kind. If he’d been charged with manslaughter – not murder – he’d have been facing a possible sentence of probation to 15 years. Murder carries a mandatory penalty of 15 to life – too much, says Lamagna, for a young man who never intended to kill anyone.
"Are we as a society ready to water down what murder is and turn our sons and daughters into murderers who go out and drink and drive and cause a fatal accident?" Lamagna asks. "No matter how tragic these cases are, and they truly are, they’re an unintentional act that was caused by the alcohol. But for the alcohol, this wouldn’t have happened."
Kathleen Rice says, "Can you imagine if the law allowed Mr. Heidgen to say, ‘Wait, wait, wait. But I was drunk. So I shouldn’t be responsible.’ What kind of lawlessness would you have if intoxication excused that kind of behavior?" …
The trial took six weeks; Heidgen was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 18 years to life. The verdict sealed Rice’s reputation as a leader in campaign against drunk driving…
So if drunk driving with a fatality is now murder, what next? The death penalty? Actually, yes….See my post a year ago, The Death Penalty for Murder, mentioning a North Carolina drunk driving fatality case in which the prosecutor asked the jury for the death penalty (which, fortunately, the jury refused to do).
For politically ambitious prosecutors out there, see my post How to Convict a Drunk Driver of Murder.