The first Virginia driver convicted of second-degree murder in an alcohol-related highway death in the state was sentenced today to 15 1/2 years in prison, but with 10 years suspended.
The defendant, Warren Wesley Essex of Remington, Va., could be eligible for parole from the state prison system in less than 15 months, a Corrections Department spokesman said.
The sentence drew an angry reaction from the mother of a teen-aged girl killed in the head-on crash last fall. "There's no justice," said Donna Neale as she clutched a picture of her daughter, Nora, outside the courtroom. "There's blood on the hands of the court."
The mother of 16-year-old Deborah Lynn Gouldthorp, who also died in the crash, left the courthouse immediately without comment. A passenger riding with Essex, James E. Carter, was also killed.
Prosecutors got the second-degree murder conviction instead of seeking conviction for manslaughter, which is more usual in highway death cases, because of the possibility of a stiffer sentence. Manslaughter is punishable by one to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Assistant Fauquier prosecutor Roger Inger said today's sentence represented substantially more prison time than most Virginia drivers traditionally have served in similar cases.
A Fauquier Circuit Court jury convicted Essex two months ago of three counts of second-degree murder and a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated. The jury could have recommended that Essex receive up to 20 years on each murder count, but instead recommended the five-year minimum.
Judge William Shore Robertson, who rejected a defense plea that he impose concurrent five-year sentences, said in court today the case was the most difficult to adjudicate of his career. "The court is painfully aware of the severe grief, loss of life and sadness and attendant distress on the families of the victims and your family," Robertson told Essex.
Robertson imposed the prison term after reviewing a presentence report on Essex, which was not made public. He said he "anguished greatly" in reaching his decision and added, "It is inescapable that there is nothing the court can do to resolve in the hearts of everyone" the outcome they would have preferred in the case.
Under Virginia law, Robertson was forced to impose five-year prison terms on each murder count, but could have suspended all or any portion of it. Robertson sentenced Essex to six months in jail on the drunk driving count. Essex already has served about three months, his lawyer said.