First in flight, but last in mercy

By grafting murder law onto DWI cases, North Carolina may be running roughshod over traditional notions of justice.

February 20, 2000|By Ann G. Sjoerdsma

KITTY HAWK, N.C. -- The large sign next to the four roadside crosses reads "DRINKING + DRIVING CAN COST YOU A PRECIOUS GEM." Garnished in flowers, each simple white cross bears a name: Megan, Angie, Amanda, Shana. On April 6, 1999, at this site on Highway 158 in Kill Devil Hills, four 17-year-old girls last saw each other.

The crash instantly killed Megan Blong, Angie McGrady and Amanda Geiger, all from New Jersey. Shana Lawler, whose family had recently moved to North Carolina's Outer Banks, died six days later. Only Michael Horner, 17, sitting in the front passenger seat of the Lawler family's Chevrolet Cavalier, survived, with serious injuries.

Last month, Michael returned to the scene of his beach-vacation-turned-nightmare. He came to testify in court that his friend, Megan, had waited for a green traffic signal before she drove into the intersection, intending to turn left onto the 158 bypass. He came to tell once again of the Mitsubishi Montero that barreled through the opposing red light, broadsiding the old Cavalier.

He also came to help a Dare County jury decide that 30-year-old Melissa Lynn Marvin, who, witnesses testified, drank two 16-ounce margaritas and three shots of 100-proof schnapps in a two-hour period before running that red light, committed murder.

Thousands of Marylanders visit North Carolina's lush barrier islands each year, many staying in their own dream-of-a-lifetime beach cottages. They all know this intersection, at Colington Road, just south of the Wright Brothers Memorial, before the fast-food stretch of 158 known as "French Fry Alley." They also know how much alcohol fits into their idea of a good-time vacation.

Before they get behind the wheel again, after having had a few beers at an Outer Banks bar or restaurant, I suggest these Marylanders learn the law. The state that was first in flight nearly a century ago is hardly first in compassion.

The Melissa Marvin trial opened Monday, Jan. 10, with a pool of 400 jurors reporting to the Manteo courthouse, and ended the next Saturday afternoon, when Dare County Superior Court Judge Jerry R. Tillett passed sentence. Nine men and three women deliberated only four hours Friday before finding Marvin guilty of four counts of second-degree murder and one count of "assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury."

Said one Kitty Hawk lawyer: "There was such a lynch-mob mentality in that courtroom. You cannot imagine."

Applying North Carolina's structured sentencing law, the judge imposed a prison term of 174 to 218 months for each murder count and 24 to 29 months for the assault. He chose not only to "aggravate" Marvin's sentence, punishing her again for the facts that proved her crimes, but also to run the terms consecutively.

Marvin, a waitress, student and competitive surfer who has lived on the Outer Banks for 10 years, must serve 60 years -- the combined minimum --without parole.

Most locals reacted to the verdict with shock. A remorseful Marvin received a life sentence for a crime she did not "intend" -- in any sense of the word -- to commit. But, in seeking murder convictions, lead prosecutor Robert P. Trivette clearly intended to send a "message": Drink, drive and kill in the Tar Heel State, and you will be sorry beyond measure.

As sorry as I am for the heartbreaking loss that four families have suffered, I hear a different message. It's a message about justice. Or the lack thereof.

North Carolina's chief district attorneys and judges, all of whom are elected -- even the seven justices on the state Supreme Court -- have allowed public outrage over drunken driving, and their desire for political popularity, to undermine the rule of law. In grafting murder law onto DWI deaths, through slam-dunk opinions for the prosecution, the courts have made of the people they serve merciless law-and-order taskmasters.

We have an eye fixed on punishment but not on prevention or rehabilitation. Drunken drivers -- some of whom are alcoholics, as acquaintances say Marvin is -- are people we revile, not friends and neighbors we know or sick people we want to help.

North Carolina prosecutors are routinely charging drunken drivers who kill with second-degree murder, on an "implied malice" theory. Intent to kill need not be proved, and drivers need not be aware of their dangerousness. Grossly reckless conduct is sufficient for a conviction.

Statewide, inventive district attorneys have obtained three verdicts of first-degree DWI murder, under the felony-murder rule: The "murder" is said to have occurred during the perpetration of an assault with a deadly weapon -- the vehicle being a deadly weapon. A DWI felony-murder conviction out of Forsyth County is on appeal before the North Carolina Supreme Court and being closely watched.

Marking a national "first," the prosecutor in State vs. Jones, Vincent Rabil, sought -- but the jury did not recommend -- the death penalty.

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