Timothy Blackwell faces an automatic life prison sentence. Jurors couldn't consider a death sentence because the penalty had been ruled out before the trial started.
The parents of Megan Dail, whose picture was one of the last things the jury saw before starting deliberations Wednesday afternoon, gasped and cried when the verdict was announced. Blackwell showed no emotion.
The conviction marked the second time that a prosecutor in North Carolina had sought and won a first-degree murder conviction in a death caused by a drunken driver.
Last year, Thomas Richard Jones was sentenced to life in prison for the 1996 deaths of two Wake Forest University students whose car he hit after drinking alcohol and taking pain killers.
Jones' driving-while-impaired case apparently was the first in the nation in which prosecutors sought the death penalty for murder.
Prosecutors won murder convictions in similar trials in Washington state in 1996 and California in 1995, but either declined to seek the death penalty or were forced by law to seek lesser punishment.
The 37-year-old Blackwell had five previous drunken-driving convictions and was trying to escape when officers arrested him at the wreck site last Feb. 27. Blackwell also was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for injuring Megan's parents and two brothers
``There is absolutely no justification or excuse for the defendant killing this child,'' Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin Jr. said during closing arguments.
Blackwell's blood-alcohol concentration was 0.13 shortly after the crash, above the 0.08 legal standard for impairment in North Carolina. Hardin said for Blackwell to get behind the wheel was akin to putting a bullet in a gun.
Public Defender Bob Brown said his client was not offering any excuses but was merely seeking a fair judgment.
``He is not attempting to escape,'' Brown said. ``He's only asking you to find him guilty of what he is guilty of - involuntary manslaughter.''
Blackwell was charged under the state's felony-murder rule. When a death results from the commission of a felony - even if the death was not premeditated - then the defendant may be held responsible for the death as though it were planned.
In Blackwell's case, the state contended he committed the felonies of assault with a deadly weapon when he struck the two vehicles and injured the occupants.
Blackwell's lawyers argued the state was trying to elevate a tragic accident into an unfounded murder conviction.
Hardin dismissed the argument. ``The reason it is not an accident is that this defendant decided voluntarily to get drunk,'' he said.
Blackwell pleaded guilty before the trial to five offenses related to the fatal crash: felonious driving while impaired, driving left of center, driving with a revoked license, possessing drug paraphernalia and having an open alcoholic beverage container in his truck. Sentencing for those offenses will follow the murder trial.
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