A state appellate court has upheld the murder conviction and 30-year-to-life sentence given to a drunk driver who killed four people in a head-on crash on the Ventura Freeway.
Daniel Edmund Murray, 29, of Lancaster was convicted by a jury in 1988 of four counts of second-degree murder and two counts of felony drunk driving in the Dec. 11, 1986, wrong-way crash that killed Suzanne Brown, 37; her son, Jonah, 7; her father, Jack Rawls, 69, and Dia Rae Rounds, 16, of Ventura.
After consuming an estimated 19 beers at lunch and at an office party in Torrance the afternoon and evening of the crash, Murray got lost on his way home and drove his pickup truck eastbound on the westbound Ventura Freeway for at least three miles at speeds estimated at 50 to 75 m.p.h.
He struck Brown's car head-on near Liberty Canyon Road in Agoura. Brown's son, Jamaal, riding home from a game on a bus with fellow members of his high school basketball team, saw his mother's wrecked Honda Accord surrounded by ambulances.
Lawrence Smith, the Sacramento lawyer who filed the appeal on Murray's behalf, challenged the conviction on a number of grounds. Primarily, he claimed that the district attorney had not met the burden of proof for prosecuting Murray for second-degree murder rather than vehicular manslaughter.
In issuing its ruling, the 2nd District Court of Appeal noted that Murray had a blood-alcohol level of between 0.18% and 0.23% at the time of the crash. The legal standard for drunk driving was 0.10% at that time.
The court also noted that Murray had several prior convictions for drunk driving and, only five days before the accident, Murray had completed a three-year probation for a 1983 alcohol-related reckless driving conviction.
In the 1981 landmark case of "People vs. Watson," the California Supreme Court held that a drunk driver could be found guilty of second-degree murder if the driver "exhibited a conscious disregard for life" even though the driver did not intentionally kill anyone.
The malice required for a murder conviction could be shown if a defendant had been warned about the dangers of drunk driving and drove in a reckless manner, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Phil Rabichow, who prosecuted Murray.
"I feel compassion for his wife, his child and his family--they all seem like very nice people. . . . But I think it is necessary to show that we're going to deter people who commit crimes like this," Rabichow said.
"I am disappointed but not shocked," said Audrey Winograde, one of Murray's two attorneys during the trial. "The prosecution has a sure winner once they've got a prior drunk-driving conviction."
Smith said he will seek a rehearing by the appellate court and, if that is denied, will appeal the case to the California Supreme Court.