DUI manslaughter convictions in Florida bring wide range of penalties

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In a previous blog, we had written about a Florida woman who was texting as she ran a red light, causing a fatal automobile accident. She was charged with DUI manslaughter as a result of her actions.

Coming on the heels of this, the Miami Herald had a long article about that case and comparing her prison sentence to other similar defendants. The results are surprising. Throughout Florida, while DUI laws are identical, the punishments are definitely not. The severity of the punishment varies by location, judge, gender, age and race among other things…

The defendant featured in a previous blog post, 20-year-old Kayla Mendoza tweeted “2 drunk 2 care” before killing two young women in a drunk-driving crash. She tearfully admitted guilt, but, faced with furious relatives of the deceased, a Broward judge slammed her with a 24-year prison term.

A few days later, a known alcoholic by the name of Antonio Lawrence, 57, faced a Miami-Dade judge for plowing into a restaurant while driving drunk, killing two church elders. Relatives of the deceased offered forgiveness. The defendant only got 10 years.

In a different courtroom in the same courthouse, on the same day, 27-year-old Edna Jean-Pierre took responsibility for killing one person in a DUI crash, then killing another in a hit-and-run crash — while out on bail in the first case! A separate Miami-Dade judge sentenced her to a relatively light four years in prison- a ruling that infuriated relatives of the victims.

The daughter of the second victim killed by Jean-Pierre, Sonya Estiven was livid. “I would have preferred 10 years. Eight years, I would have been a little mad,””But for her to have only got four years, I’m still shocked. I’m still upset. I’m still depressed. The judge sent a message that it’s OK to drink and drive.”

The Florida DUI manslaughter laws include a four-year mandatory minimum for a conviction. After that, judicial discretion comes into play and prison terms vary widely from cases to case based on the county, the victims relatives, prosecutors and other quirks.

The four-year minimum mandatory term is a newer addition to the law, added eight years ago in 2007 over concerns about judges being too soft on drunk drivers who kill. Known as the “Adam Arnold Act,” the law was named after a Key West teen who died in a crash in 1996, and where the driver got only three years of probation.

The newspaper studied over the prison records of 400 fatality cases resolved in Florida in the last three years. They found that since 2012 the statewide average sentence for DUI manslaughter is just under 10 years behind bars. Looking throughout Florida, Miami-Dade had the most cases in that time span, 66,but had among the lightest average sentences with convicts serving an average of just over 6 years in prison. Nearby Broward County had 27 cases with the defendant’s average sentence resulting in a prison time just under 10 years.

The farther north you go in Florida, often the harsher sentence one receives. Palm Beach convicts average 11.54 years in prison for DUI manslaughter, while those in Hillsborough County (Tampa) serve about 10.18 years.

As mentioned previously, there are multiple reasons for the disparity in sentences. Outcomes are swayed by a host of factors: the strength of evidence, the skill of defense attorneys, circumstances of a crash, a defendant’s criminal history, media glare and especially on the Gulf Coast, the desires of a victim’s loved ones.

“Victims drive to a good degree what the sentence outcome will be,” said a criminal defense attorney. “Victims who are not active, not engaged with the state attorney’s office, are going to see a lower number in the sentencing.”

This was certainly true in the above case of Jean-Pierre, who in 2009 drove drunk, killing a man outside of his car on the side of an interstate. The case dragged on for years — until in early 2014, while still on bail, she hit a pedestrian as she was walking along a dark street. The defendant, a nurse, left the scene and immediately took the car to get repaired at a body shop.

Both of Jean-Pierre’s cases had problematic evidence and were not assured convictions for the state at trial. While Florida sentencing guidelines called for for 12 years in prison, the Judge departed after hearing that Jean-Pierre was a mother of two and was a victim of domestic violence. She enraged the victim’s daughter when the defendant was sentenced to just four years in prison.

While the victim’s daughter penned a letter that was read out loud to the judge, no other family members were involved in the case and for some reason her crimes were not given heavy media coverage.
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Drunk drivers who kill rarely escape at least the mandatory four year’s prison time but prosecutors can waive the minimum four mandatory. For example, in a 2009 case pro football player Donte Stallworth received only 30 days in jail and a lengthy probation for killing a pedestrian in Miami Beach. The prosecutors claimed they offered the plea bargain because there was no guarantee of victory at trial. The victim was not in a crosswalk that dark morning when he was struck.

In that case, the decision to support the lighter sentence hinged on the victim’s relatives, who pushed for the deal after receiving a large settlement from Stallwort!.

In my opinion, the number one determination in the sentence you receive is victim’s families and their willingness to forgive. In Lawrence’s case above, he met with families of the two victims killed in the crash, became heavily involved helping recovering alcoholics and even surrendered to jail early before pleading guilty. The Miami-Dade Judge responded by giving him a relatively light sentence of 10 years, much less than the 34 years he faced had he been convicted at trial.

Oftentimes the emotional reaction of relatives also can clash, with some urging leniency while others called for heavy punishment.

For example, the family of a Coral Gables jogger killed by a drunk driver wanted a stiff sentence and got one — at first. The defendant who drove drunk and killed the victim back in 2008, got 12 years in prison during an emotionally charged sentencing hearing.

The defendant had pleaded guilty with no plea deal. But a judge later threw out the sentence after his lawyer admitted he botched the case. Soon after the state realized the case had problems. One vial used to collect the suspect’s blood was expired, and the deceased had stopped in the middle of the darkened road to adjust his iPod — giving the defense an avenue to shift the blame. The defendant ultimately winded up doing five years in prison-much to the anger of the deceased’s parents.

Closer to the Gulf Coast, two young women in well-known cases in the social-media age had drastically different outcomes.

A 20-year-old South Beach bartender, was drunk when she hit and killed a chef walking across the street, then fled the scene before her arrest. On facebook the defendant described herself as a “party princess” and posted multiple photos of her drinking and partying-some of which might have been taken after her arrest! Despite that, in 2013 she tearfully accepted — with the victim’s family approval — a plea deal that called for just four years in prison followed by house arrest and probation.

Two years later another young woman tweeted “2 drunk 2 care” before driving the wrong way on an expressway, plowing her car into another incoming car back in November 2013. Killed in the other car: best friends Marisa Catronio and Kaitlyn Nicole Ferrante, both 21.

The suspect had been drinking at a work party and had a blood-alcohol content level nearly twice the legal limit. She pleaded guilty with no plea deal. She thought she had helped herself by giving two depositions to help the victim’s civil lawsuit against the restaurant where the work party was held and T-Mobile store where the suspect worked. Yet at her sentencing in in a highly publicized hearing, relatives angrily asked the Broward Circuit Judge for the max of 30 years (15 years per count).

Despite her cooperation, her young age, her remorse and lack of any prior criminal history, the judge responded by giving her 24 years!

Her criminal defense lawyer was in shock .”My client was doing everything she could to handle this the right way, and she still got slammed,” he said.

Her attorney admitted the flippant tweet and heavy media coverage provided little incentive for the judge to reduce a sentence. That one text captured the imagination of the public and probably put pressure on the judge.

Have you or a loved one been arrested for a DUI or vehicular homicide? Then call the Pinellas DUI defense lawyers of Blake & Dorsten, P.A. today! These former prosecutors are experienced trial attorneys.

The lawyers of Blake & Dorsten, P.A. handle all criminal and auto accident cases along the Gulf Coast including Saint Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor, Palm Harbor, Largo, Seminole, Brandon, Kenneth City and Indian Rocks.

To speak directly with your Saint Petersburg criminal defense attorney, click on the contact button or call 727.286.6141. Blake & Dorsten, P.A…when your case matters!

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