Drunken drivers who kill face longer prison terms

After she signed the bill, Gov. Chris Gregoire stood up to give Carol Blair a hug and hand her the pen she used to turn a quest for justice into law.

The Tacoma woman held a large poster of her daughter by her side.

For Frank Blair, Carol’s husband, it was a poignant moment.

“At that level, it was just two mommies,” he said.

The couple’s daughter, Sheena Blair, 24, and her friend, Martin “Tony” Ramirez, 19, were killed in 2010 by a wrong-way drunken driver on Broadway in Everett.

For years families of victims killed in drunken-driving crashes have fought for longer sentences. They wanted to eliminate what they saw as a double standard under state law. Kill somebody unintentionally with a punch and face about 8 years in prison. Kill somebody while driving drunk, and the standard sentencing range was 2½ to 3½ years in prison.

The Blairs joined the crusade for longer sentences after their daughter’s death.

The embrace from the governor on March 29 provided a warm feeling at the end of the often-frustrating journey.

“It just melted my bones,” Frank Blair said. “Good things happen in Olympia from time to time.”

The new law raises the sentencing range in Washington for DUI-related vehicular homicide to the same level as first-degree manslaughter, 6½ to 8½ years.

“We are not angry, vengeful people,” Frank Blair said. “Our goal is not to punish people. Our goal is to have less people killed by drunk drivers.”

Prosecutors from across the state argued that the sentencing range should be the same for vehicular homicide as it is for manslaughter.

It has been difficult for prosecutors to break the news to grieving families that a drunken driver who killed a loved one could get out of prison in less than two years with good time. “I would anticipate there is going to be less disappointment,” said Tobin Darrow, a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor who handles vehicular homicide cases.

Reactions traditionally have varied “anywhere from shocked to dismayed” when families learned about the sentencing ranges for vehicular homicides and vehicular assaults, he said.

That’s what Jan Stivers of Lake Stevens felt when she was told about the expected sentencing range after her daughter, Meghan Stivers, 26, was killed by a drunken driver near Marysville in 2011. A Snohomish County judge sentenced Randy Sedy, 45, to six years in prison — a few months shy of the former maximum under state sentencing guidelines. The sentence incorporated an extra two years because Sedy had a 2005 drunken driving conviction.

Stivers hopes the longer terms under the new law will discourage others from driving after drinking or using drugs.

“I am very happy,” Stivers said. “I think it’s a start in the right direction.”

Conrad Thompson, longtime chairman of the Snohomish County DUI Task Force board, said the new law will serve as a deterrent.

“It’s a very long time coming,” said Thompson, who in 1992 started the Everett District Court probation department where he saw several hundred DUI cases come across his desk. “It’s an issue that victims have raised for years and years and years. Before the punishment didn’t fit the crime.”

Darrow said the prospect of more prison time should serve as a deterrent for most people, particularly occasional social drinkers who may risk driving home impaired.

The sentencing range for vehicular assault caused by alcohol or drug impaired drivers also will increase to six to 12 months in jail, from three to nine months.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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