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Prosecutor Seeks Death Penalty For Drunk Driver; Death Rejected by North Carolina Jury


May-June 1997

A Winston-Salem, North Carolina jury has, for the first time, been permitted by a court to find a drunk driver guilty of first-degree murder. Even though the prosecutor sought the death penalty, the jury sentenced him to two life terms in prison without parole, to be served concurrently. Thomas Richard Jones, while under the influence of alcohol, painkillers, and an antidepressant, crashed his vehicle into a car carrying six sorority sisters from Wake Forest University, killing two of them (Kevin Sack, "Jury Holds a Drunken Driver's Life in the Balance," New York Times, May 6, 1997, p. A1; Kevin Sack, "No Death Sentence for Drunken Driver in Student Killings," New York Times, May 7, 1997, p. A1; Karl Vick, "Intoxicated N.C. Driver Handed Life Sentence," Washington Post, May 7, 1997, p. A9).

Assistant District Attorney Vincent F. Rabil, who works under District Attorney Tom Keith, sought the death penalty in the case, citing aggravating factors which included Mr. Jones's use of his car as a "weapon of mass destruction" and his pursuit of a "violent course of conduct." Mr. Jones had two previous convictions for driving while intoxicated, with a third pending. At the time of the accident his blood alcohol level was not over the legal limit, but his intoxicated state was enhanced by other drugs. On the day of the killings, he had consumed four beers, Xanax®, Fioricet®, and Percocet®.

The families of the two nineteen-year-old victims, Julie Hansen and Maia Witzl, opposed the death penalty in this case, wishing instead that Jones would have to live with his guilt. Other groups, including the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, argued the death penalty was inappropriate for the case. "If you can impose the death penalty in a case like this, you've pretty much lost any basis for limiting the death penalty to the most incorrigible defendants," said Stephen Bright, director of the Center.

Jones's conviction of first-degree murder for a drunk driving killing also set legal precedent. Prosecutors held that Jones could be convicted of first-degree murder without it having been proven that he had an intent to kill. Instead, they had only to prove that he had been acting out of "culpable negligence," shown by his history of mixing alcohol with drugs and driving. Jones says he uses the drugs to ease the pain he suffers from a partially amputated leg.