A steady stream of inquiries from law enforcement officials has come to Fauquier County prosecutors since they won Virginia's first second-degree murder conviction in an alcohol-related highway fatality case earlier this fall.
Assistant Fauquier prosecutor Roger Inger said he and Commonwealth's Attorney Charles Foley have heard from officials as distant as North Carolina and Louisiana who are interested in learning how they, too, might win stiffer penalties for drunk drivers.
"It's gotten to the point where there's some public shame," Inger said of drunk driving. "But not enough to stop it."
Foley and Inger started the legal stir when they bypassed Virginia's manslaughter law -- the statute usually applied in such cases -- and accused a 25-year-old construction worker, Warren Wesley Essex, of murder for causing a two-car, head-on collision last year that left three people dead.
In a three-day trial in September, the prosecutors asked a Circuit Court jury in Warrenton to accept two novel ideas about fatal drunk driving incidents: A car is a deadly weapon in the hands of an intoxicated driver and the use of a deadly weapon implies malice, the key element in the state's second-degree murder law.
After six hours of deliberation, the jurors agreed. Essex, who witnesses said was legally drunk at the time of the crash, was sentenced this week to serve five years in prison on the murder charge -- much more time, Inger said, than a manslaughter conviction might have brought. The impact of the Essex crash is still being felt in legal circles.
One of those curious about Foley and Inger's success was David Walsh, chief prosecutor in western Virginia's Rockingham County. Walsh was faced with charging a woman who allegedly had driven intoxicated for 15 miles in the wrong lane of U.S. 33 before hitting a second car and killing one person.
Shortly after the Essex trial, Walsh and an assistant traveled to Warrenton and conferred with Foley and Inger. "It was a significant factor," said Walsh, who later got indictments on second-degree murder and drunk driving. The Rockingham trial is scheduled to begin Monday.
The Fauquier prosecutors also were contacted by Pam Stewart, an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia. Stewart was assigned to prosecute a 31-year-old District resident involved in a wreck while fleeing police. A child died in the crash, and the child's father was severely burned.
Earlier this month, Stewart won her case. "They gave me good ideas on where to look for ideas," she said of Foley and Inger. The D.C. defendant, scheduled for sentencing next month, faces up to life imprisonment for second-degree murder. He also could receive up to 10 years for assault with a deadly weapon -- his car.
Meanwhile, Foley and Inger, following their own lead, have charged a Fairfax County woman with second-degree murder for her alleged role in a May 1 crash in Fauquier that killed two women riding in a second car. The prosecutors contend the driver, who goes on trial on Jan. 25, was drunk.
"I think the judge said it all," said Inger after last week's sentencing of Essex. "I think he's saying that Warren Essex didn't intend to kill anybody." Under Virginia law, however, prosecutors need not prove specific intent to win a second-degree murder conviction.
In spite of their recent courtroom success, Inger said future murder charges in drunk driving cases will depend on the facts in each case. "It's an awareness of the risk and what attempts were made to minimize it," he said. Driving drunk for several miles before causing a fatal collision, Inger and Walsh maintain, may amount to murderous behavior.