arren Wesley Essex was intoxicated, ran a red light and swerved into oncoming traffic lanes only minutes before a head-on crash that killed three people, prosecution witnesses said today in Virginia's first trial of an alleged drunk driver on second-degree murder charges.

"Driving like that, he isn't long for this world," a woman testified she told her husband after Essex allegedly nearly struck the couple's car as he passed them on a darkened country road last Nov. 20. The fatal collision occurred two minutes later, according to today's testimony.

Killed were a passenger in Essex' car, James E. Carter, 23, and two teen-age girls in another car, Nora Lynn Neale, 17, and Deborah Lynn Gouldthorpe, 16.

A clinical pathologist at Fauquier County Hospital, Dr. Michael Orlando, also testified for the prosecution that a blood sample taken from the 25-year-old Essex three hours after the crash showed a blood alcohol content of .144, well above the .100 standard for intoxication in Virginia.

Fauquier prosecutors abruptly ended their presentation of evidence late today after Circuit Judge William Shore Robertson refused to allow proposed testimony by a Virginia state trooper to reconstruct the accident scene.

Tonight the judge denied a defense motion to dismiss the murder charges on grounds that prosecutors had failed to make their case.

The murder trial is being closely followed by advocates of stronger penalties for drunk drivers in Virginia, which has no vehicular homicide statute.

Involuntary manslaughter, the charge most often brought in the state's fatal highway accidents, carries a lesser penalty than the murder charge.

"We don't blame the commonwealth for trying a novel idea -- for being sensitive to the issues and the people who elect them," defense lawyer Lee Albrecht said in an opening statement. Whether the Virginia legislature should strengthen the state's drunk driving laws, he added, "there is no reason for Essex to be made a victim, a further victim, in this tragedy."

An assistant Fauquier prosecutor, Roger Inger, in his opening remarks, contended that Essex' car was "an instrument of death" because of the construction laborer's drinking, justifying the murder charge.

Prosecution witnesses, including police and rescue personnel, gave grisly details of the accident scene, several saying they noted the odor of alcohol on Essex' breath as they worked to extricate the victims from the wreckage.

Trooper Donald P. Johnson, who interviewed Essex at the hospital on the night of the crash, said Essex maintained he had drunk three beers about 5 p.m. and was in the wrong traffic lane "because my steering went out."

Pathologist Orlando testified the blood sample taken at 1:30 a.m., three hours after the crash, still showed intoxication and that Essex' blood alcohol count at the time of the collision could be assumed to have been higher.

A mechanic near Warrenton who inspected the steering on Essex' car said the equipment was unflawed, except for a break in the steering column caused by the crash