RALEIGH — Drunk driving used to mean just losing your license. Now, in some cases, it can lead to life in prison. As public awareness of the problem increases, so do the penalties.
Last May -- for the first time ever -- a North Carolina man was convicted of first-degree murder in a drunk driving death. Now, more and more drunk drivers who kill are being charged with first and second-degree murder.
The challenge here is that the prosecutor must prove the driver acted maliciously. It's a challenge that police and prosecutors are now willing to meet.
Mario Hernandez didn't use a gun, a knife, or his hands, but still he's charged with second-degree murder. Police say that what he did do was get behind the wheel drunk and kill 81-year-old William Rosenthal. "It's sort of difficult for someone to envision charging someone with murder for doing something like drinking that we do socially everyday."
Cary police say this is the first time they have charged someone with murder in a drunk driving death. But, Hernandez has a record of drunk driving and Lt. Doug Scott says that the charge fits.
Listen toauorreal audiofiles. "You know you have been drinking. It's a willful, intentional act to get behind the wheel, that's malice in itself."
Investigators say Hernandez's blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, when the accident happened here at this intersection in Cary. They say that this along with his record make a strong case for a murder charge.
Last year, Thomas Jones became the first person in North Carolina to be convicted of first-degree murder in a drunk driving case. He was sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of two Wake Forest students.
Karyn Brown of Mothers Against Drunk Driving say this case opened the door to charging drunk drivers with murder.
Listen toauorreal audiofiles. "DWI is a violent crime, and people that commit DWI need to be treated like violent criminals."
A recent Sampson County case is more proof. Police say David Gray was drunk when he hit and killed a teenage girl. Two weeks ago he was charged with second-degree murder. Photographer: Doug Bricker