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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
February 1, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

New Jersey Tort Claims Act Allows Suit Against Public Entity When Existing Stop Sign Not Maintained
New York Court Finds That Defective Shoulder Caused Death in Automobile Accident
Wandering Cow on Turnpike Is Dangerous Condition

Highway Safety Publications Catalog. Articles on Road Engineering, Road Maintenance & Management, and Injury Litigation. Information and consulting for the Automobile and Road User, as well as for law professionals in accident investigations.
TranSafety's free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and highway safety publications catalog. See our free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and a highway safety publications catalog.

Courts Getting Tough on Drinking Drivers

Courts in Mississippi and Washington State have recently handed down decisions that set new precedents for punishing motorists who kill while under the influence of alcohol.

In the December 1996 issue of's hardcopy newsletter, the TranSafety Reporter, we described the California case of Kenneth Autry, who was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder for driving onto a freeway median and killing two highway construction workers ("California Motorist Convicted of Second- Degree Murder for Road Workers' Deaths"). In that case, the appellate court supported the trial court's decision that the evidence against Autry proved "implied malice" and justified the second-degree murder conviction. Other states are also issuing unusual and severe convictions for drunken driving.

Mississippi's Harrison County Circuit Court convicted Brandon Blenden of driving under the influence and causing death (the state's equivalent to vehicular homicide). The Peninsula Daily News of Port Angeles, Washington, related the events in their December 26, 1996 edition. The article stated that Blenden was 17 years old when he drove drunk on Old U.S. 49 near Gulfport. He hit the rear of Ann Lee's vehicle, killing Lee's daughter. The court sentenced Blenden to twenty years in prison for the July 29, 1995 death of the four-year-old and added a fine of $520. Blenden will pay the fine $1 at a time, by writing a check to the Lees every Friday for the next ten years. In the check's comment space, the convicted drunk driver must write "for the death of your daughter, Whitney." The newspaper described the sentence as "part of a trend of alternative sentencing by judges who have found that jail time is not a strong enough message for criminals."

Washington's Spokane County Superior Court has handed down that state's first first-degree-murder conviction for drunken driving. Lily Eng of the Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer reported the story in the December 15, 1996 edition. The court sentenced James Barstad to over 50 years in prison, more than twice the time he would have served for a vehicular homicide conviction. The convicted drunken driver testified that he drank three pitchers of beer at his girlfriend's home before angrily speeding off in his pickup. He raced down the streets making obscene gestures at passing motorists and going through stop signs. When he ran a red light at a busy intersection, he hit two cars and his truck became airborne. The pickup finally landed on top of another vehicle, killing Julie Allen, 15, and Karen Sederhold, 26. The crash also injured five bystanders.

Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz argued Barstad's actions showed "extreme indifference to human life"--one of the conditions for first-degree murder. He felt Barstad's conduct made it "inevitable he was going to kill someone" and the legal equivalent of shooting a gun into a crowd. A Washington State attorney who specializes in defending DUI cases called this case "grandstanding" on the part of Spokane prosecutors. He added, "It's like rounding up a vigilante posse and charging a man with a crime that's not on the books." Public defender Al Rossi contended Barstad "did not intentionally set out to injure or kill anyone when he got into his truck." Rossi is appealing the conviction and called the verdict a "farce." For now, Representative Mark Sterk (R-Spokane) sees the verdict as a precedent for upgrading vehicular homicide charges to murder charges.

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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