Raleigh, N.C. — Starting Saturday, judges will have the option of longer prison sentences for those convicted in felony drunk driving wrecks in North Carolina.
The current maximum penalty under the law is 3 ½ years in prison.
Most drivers who cause a death while drunk are charged with felony death by vehicle. In rare cases, North Carolina district attorneys will charge them with second-degree murder. However, those cases can be difficult to prove because prosecutors need to show an aggravating circumstance, such as a prior drunken driving charge, and prove malice to a jury, which can be a tough sell.
"The new law will add longer jail sentences to those persons convicted of felony death by vehicle or impaired driving homicides," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
Judges also have the option of including higher fines.
The new law comes too late for families like the parents of 20-year-old Elena Shapiro, who was killed in a drunk driving crash in Raleigh in 2009. Dr. Raymond Cook was convicted in the crash and given a 36- to 54-month prison sentence at Craven Correctional Institution in Vanceboro.
Hermelindo Castro was given the maximum penalty after being convicted of killing Kristie Lee, 37, in a drunk driving crash in 2010.
Under the new law, both men could have faced longer sentences.
Lawmakers hope the new law will reduce the number of families coping with the death of a loved one due to a drunk driver.
"These cases are tragedies, but I think the law reflects society's continued disillusionment with people driving drunk and killing people," Willoughby said.