Goldsboro, N.C. — Kristie Lee is buried on her family's farm in Wayne County, a constant reminder of a life cut short. The 37-year-old mother of two was leaving a Mount Olive church on Oct. 17, 2010, when a drunken driver hit her car head-on, killing her.
A court found Hermelindo Castro guilty in her death and sentenced him to the maximum penalty under the law – 3 ½ years in prison. Lee's family members say that sentence is too short. They're not alone.
“It is not just an insult to a father, but it's an insult to humanity,” said Doug Jernigan, Lee’s father.
In cases like Lee’s, victims' families often want to blame the judge for what they see as a light sentence that doesn't fit the seriousness of the crime. However, North Carolina judges are bound by strict, structured sentencing guidelines, leaving them with few options.
“I just don't believe it's that much different than taking a loaded gun and going into a place of business and firing,” said Kimberly Smith, Lee’s sister.
Wayne County Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones shares their frustration and has taken a rare stand for a judge by speaking out against what he believes are inadequate sentencing guidelines for felony death by vehicle.
“Yes, it is frustrating. I'm human. I get frustrated. A lot of people do,” Jones said. “But I've still got to uphold my oath, and that's what I'm going to do to the best of my ability.”
The judge has dealt with many families who have lost loved ones to drunken drivers and says that talking to them “has been the most difficult and heart-wrenching thing I've had to do.”
“What are we going to do to protect your children and my children from this kind of thing happening to them?” Jones said.
Mother: 'It was just unreal'
Catherine Floars was at her Wayne County home on Oct. 10, 2010, when troopers came to her door to deliver the news that her 17-year-old son, Jacob Floars, had been killed in a drunken driving crash while riding in a friend’s car.
“I said, ‘Is he OK?’ When they didn’t respond, I knew, and I dropped to my knees,” Floras said. She then had the daunting task of delivering the news to her husband. “How do you call someone and tell them that they've lost their son?”
“She said, ‘Jacob's gone,’” Allen Floras remembered. “I said, ‘What do you mean Jacob's gone?’ (She said,) ‘He's gone. He was in a car accident.’”
The driver of the car Floars was riding in, 17-year-old Mark Pope, was charged with killing Floars and two other passengers – Joshua Leon Brantley, 25, and Ashley Nicole Haskins, 18. Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory broke the news to Floars’ family about the amount of time Pope would likely serve for their son's death.
“That was difficult to deal with, disappointing to say the least,” Vickory said.
Pope was sentenced to a minimum of six years and three months for killing three people.
“It was just unreal,” Catherine Floars said.
“It was an insult. It was a tragedy in itself,” Allen Floars added. "If (lawmakers) could make the punishment match our pain, there would be a lot less of this going on."
Senator: 'Good people get killed'
Sen. Buck Newton, R-Nash, has met with Lee’s and Floars’ families about the possibility of sponsoring legislation to increase the penalties in cases like theirs. A similar bill, Senate Bill 393, was proposed last year, but never got out of committee.
“Good people get killed. Good people get maimed. Terrible things happen when people drink and drive,” Newton said.
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.
Raleigh defense attorney Karl Knudsen says he believes that, for lawmakers, upping the penalties for drunken driving deaths is more about politics than logic.
“Nobody ever lost a vote being too tough on drinking and driving,” Knudsen said, adding that not everyone deserves the harshest penalties. “There are going to be people that are very good people who are going to unintentionally cause a death that they are going to regret for the rest of their lives.”
Despite likely opposition from people who share Knudsen’s point of view, Newton says he is willing to take on the issue.
“We'll take a long hard look at it and see what we can do,” Newton said, adding that he will see if there is support in the General Assembly for raising the penalties. If so, he might introduce a bill in the long session, which begins in January 2013.