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Sentence in Drunk-Driving Case Draws Ire

October 30, 1987|ANTHONY PERRY | Times Staff Writer

In a decision that outraged friends and relatives of the victims, a judge Thursday sentenced a Rancho Santa Fe woman to 180 days in a work-furlough program after she pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and drunk driving.

Vista Superior Court Judge Don Martinson imposed the sentence on Paris Lynn Wahlen-Herman, 28, for the Aug. 13 crash on Via de la Valle that killed a 74-year-old Solana Beach woman and severely injured two companions.

The three victims were returning from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when their car was struck by Wahlen-Herman's 1985 Porsche, which had crossed into the oncoming lane. According to court records, Wahlen-Herman had a blood alcohol reading of 0.10%, which qualifies as legally drunk.

Out-of-State Citations

The district attorney's office had sought a two-year state prison sentence for Wahlen-Herman, the maximum sentence for a first offense of vehicular manslaughter committed without gross negligence but while under the influence of alcohol.

But friends and relatives of the victims still faulted prosecutors for not discovering the defendant's out-of-state citations for speeding and reckless driving and for not considering evidence that conflicted with the California Highway Patrol's conclusion that the Porsche's lights were turned on at the time of the 9:50 p.m. crash.

"Justice was not present in that courtroom today," said Natalie Greetzman, vice president of the San Diego County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which had alerted the media to the case and organized a show of support for the victims.

"The justice system is disgusting today," said Don Wilson, a retired salesman and a neighbor of Jane Taylor, who was killed in the crash.

"I just don't understand how this is not a case where a mandatory jail sentence is required," said another neighbor, Eric Reissner, a professor emeritus of applied mechanics at UC San Diego.

'Lives Were Destroyed'

Taylor's husband, Vern Taylor, a retired employee of Chevron Corp., pleaded with Martinson to consider Wahlen-Herman's driving record from Ohio and to review affidavits from other drivers who said the Porsche's lights were not turned on.

Those two factors, he said, justify a more serious charge because they show negligence.

"Our lives were destroyed," Taylor told the judge, his voice quavering. "Our happiness was snuffed out. She lost her life, and mine was filled with despair, loneliness and suffering."

As Wahlen-Herman, who is employed in the cosmetics business, walked to the courtroom, she was served with a legal notice that she is the object of a wrongful death suit by Taylor. Civil suits by the two other victims are also expected.

"The judge did the best he could, but we're very disappointed," said Taylor's attorney, Michael H. Fish.

Martinson, a judge for 17 years, said the case left him perplexed and frustrated. The state Legislature, he said, has not given judges enough authority in drunk-driving cases. He noted that his own son died in an "alcohol-related" incident in Idaho.

He said Wahlen-Herman fit the criteria for not being sentenced to state prison: steady employment, longtime ties to the community, no history of drunk driving or other criminality, no indication that she is a threat to society.

"We have to balance the needs of the society--both victim and the defendant--and it's a difficult chore," Martinson said. "This has been a tragic case, and I know this is not going to satisfy everybody."

Sentence Termed Inappropriate

Martinson sentenced Wahlen-Herman to the County Jail at Las Colinas in Santee, which will allow her to work during the day and be locked up at night and on the weekends.

The judge also ordered that she pay a $750 fine and complete restitution to the victims through her insurance company. A two-year prison sentence was put in abeyance as long as she stays away from alcohol for four years and surrenders her driver's license for one year.

"I think this young lady has suffered considerable remorse about this offense," Martinson said. "She would have to be inhuman not to."

Robert Grimes, Wahlen-Herman's attorney, said he thought the sentence was appropriate. He said his client is undergoing psychological treatment and has joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

"It's a tragedy, but in this case, the driving was just about as inoffensive as you'll get in a criminal case," Grimes said. "Most cases deal with going 100 m.p.h. and through stop signs and things like that.

"Here, she was going 55 in a 50 m.p.h. zone, there was dirt along the road that caused the skid, and her blood alcohol, .10, was only borderline (drunk)," he added.

Wahlen-Herman's driving record from Ohio was discovered not by prosecutors or the CHP--even though the Porsche had Ohio license plates--but through a search of insurance records done by attorneys for the two surviving victims.

The information, however, was made available both to the judge and the Probation Department, which had recommended the work-furlough program.

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