At 20, Kayla Mendoza tweeted “2 drunk 2 care” before killing two young women in a drunk-driving crash. She tearfully admitted guilt, but, faced with angry relatives of the dead, a Broward judge slammed her with a 24-year prison term.
Days later, a longtime alcoholic named Antonio Lawrence, 57, faced a Miami-Dade judge for plowing into a Liberty City restaurant while driving drunk, killing two church elders. Relatives offered earnest forgiveness. Lawrence got 10 years.
Downstairs on the very same day, in a courtroom with zero television news cameras, Edna Jean-Pierre, 27, took responsibility for killing one person in a DUI crash, then killing another in a hit-and-run crash — while out on bail in the first case. A Miami-Dade judge, Dennis Murphy, sentenced her to four years in prison.
“I would have preferred 10 years. Eight years, I would have been a little mad,” said Sonya Estiven, the daughter of Viala Estiven, the second person killed by Jean-Pierre. “But for her to have only got four years, I’m still shocked. I’m still upset. I’m still depressed. The judge sent a message that it’s OK to drink and drive.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
There is a four-year mandatory minimum for a DUI manslaughter conviction in Florida, but as these recent cases show, prison terms vary widely from cases to case and, a Miami Herald data analysis shows, from county to county.
In over 400 fatality cases resolved in Florida since 2012, the statewide average sentence for DUI manslaughter is just under 10 years behind bars, according to a Herald analysis of prison records. Miami-Dade by far had the most cases in that time span, 66, and among the lightest average sentences with convicts serving an average of just over 6 years in prison. In Broward’s 27 cases, defendants in that time span are serving just under 10 years.
“Broward has both a reputation and a reality of being harsher than Miami-Dade,” said Miami defense attorney David Weinstein.
Upstate, the average sentences in major metropolitan areas are even higher. Palm Beach convicts average 11.54 years in prison for DUI manslaughter, while those in Hillsborough County serve about 10.18 years.
Legal experts say the the reasons for the disparity in sentences are complex. Outcomes are swayed by a host of factors: the strength of evidence, the skill of defense attorneys, circumstances of a crash, a defendant’s criminal history, media glare and the desires of a victim’s loved ones.
“Victims drive to a good degree what the sentence outcome will be,” said Miami attorney Rick Freedman. “Victims who are not active, not engaged with the state attorney’s office, are going to see a lower number in the sentencing.”
Take the case of Jean-Pierre, who was accused in 2009 of driving drunk when she hit a man outside of his car on the side of Interstate 95. The case dragged on for years — in January 2014, while on bail, she hit Viala Estiven as she was walking along a dark street on Opa-locka Boulevard. Jean-Pierre, a nurse, left the scene and immediately took the car to get repaired at a body shop.
“I understand that two lives were taken, and I want the families of the victims to understand that I am sorry,” Jean-Pierre said at the May sentencing.
Both cases had problematic evidence and were not assured victories at trial. In Jean-Pierre’s case, Florida sentencing guidelines — though not mandatory — called for for 12 years in prison. But Judge Murphy, after hearing that Jean-Pierre was a mother of two who had been traumatized as a victim of domestic violence, sentenced her to the four years in prison.
No relatives of the dead showed up to speak the day of her sentencing, though the victim’s daughter penned a letter that was read to the judge.
“I would love to say that the victims’ voice always makes a big difference, but it depends from judge to judge,” said Sally Matson, a victim advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who read the letter to the judge that day. “I do think there are judges that think about the criminals more than the victims.”
Judges cannot speak publicly about their cases. But a former Miami-Dade judge, Ellen Leesfield, acknowledged that for judges — who are elected — “these are the hardest cases to sentence people on, without a doubt.”
“Judges have to have the courage to hammer someone when they deserve to be hammered,” Leesfield said. “And they have to have courage to cut someone a break when they deserve it.”
The four-year minimum mandatory term is a recent addition to the law, added in 2007 over concerns about judges being too soft on drunk drivers who kill. Known as the “Adam Arnold Act,” the law was named after a Key West teen who died in a crash in 1996, a case in which the driver got only three years of probation.
Drivers convicted in fatal hit-and-run crashes — whether alcohol is detected or not — now also face a minimum of four years in prison. Lawmakers in 2014 passed the law, named after Miami cyclist Aaron Cohen, whose death spurred outrage after a Key Biscayne man got only two years behind bars for killing Cohen in the hit-and-run wreck.
Drunk drivers who kill rarely escape at least some prison time, and prosecutors can waive the minimum four years mandatory — like in a highly criticized 2009 case in Miami Beach involving a pro football player. Donte’ Stallworth, who played for five NFL teams, got 30 days in jail and a lengthy probation for killing a pedestrian crossing the MacArthur Causeway. For prosecutors, there was no guarantee of victory at trial — the victim, Mario Reyes, was not in a crosswalk that dark morning.
The decision to support the lighter sentence hinged on Reyes’ relatives, who pushed for the deal and also received an undisclosed settlement from Stallworth.
Forgiveness from families can make a difference. In Lawrence’s case, he met with families of the two church elders killed in the crash, became heavily involved helping recovering alcoholics and even surrendered to jail early before pleading guilty. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Diane Ward gave him 10 years, by no means a slap on the wrist, but much less than the 34 years he faced had he been convicted at trial.
“You’re dealing with people who are not criminals, not people who went to harm others,” said Assistant State Attorney David I. Gilbert, who oversees traffic homicide cases. “They are average citizens who have made a very serious mistake. Different judges deal with different cases in different ways.”
The emotional reaction of relatives also can clash, with some urging leniency and others calling for heavy punishment, Gilbert said.
The family of Coral Gables jogger Carlos Cardenas Jr. wanted a stiff sentence and got one — at first. Brian Harvey, the man who drove drunk and killed Cardenas in August 2008, got 12 years in prison during an emotionally charged sentencing hearing.
Harvey had pleaded guilty with no plea deal. But a judge later threw out the sentence after Harvey’s lawyer admitted he botched the case. For the state, however, the case had problems. One vial used to collect Harvey’s blood was expired, and Cardenas had stopped in the middle of the darkened road to adjust his iPod — giving the defense an avenue to shift the blame. Ultimately, Harvey in February agreed to five years in prison.
“We are going to be in jail the rest of our lives,” Cardenas’ angry father said at the time.
Two young women in notorious cases in the social-media age had drastically different outcomes.
Karlie Tomica, a 20-year-old South Beach bartender, was drunk when she hit and killed a chef walking across the street, then fled the scene before her arrest. On social media, Tomica described herself as a “party princess.” In August 2013, she tearfully accepted — and the victim’s family approved — a plea deal that called for four years in prison, plus house arrest and probation.
Two years later, Mendoza tweeted “2 drunk 2 care” before driving the wrong way on the Sawgrass Expressway, plowing her Hyundai Sonata into a Toyota Corrolla in November 2013. Killed in the other car: best friends Marisa Catronio and Kaitlyn Nicole Ferrante, both 21.
Mendoza, a cellphone saleswoman who had been drinking at a work party, had a blood-alcohol content level nearly twice the legal limit. She pleaded guilty with no plea deal, but not before giving two depositions to help the victim’s civil lawsuit against the restaurant and T-Mobile store where Mendoza worked. But at her sentencing in May, in a highly publicized hearing, relatives angrily asked Broward Circuit Judge David Haimes for the max of 30 years.
“You took away all those dreams,” Ferrante’s mother told the judge. “You took the life of my precious daughter, and you destroyed my family.”
The judge gave 24 years, despite her cooperation, age, remorse and lack of criminal history.
“My client was doing everything she could to handle this the right way, and she still got slammed,” said her attorney, John Trevana.
Her lawyers say they believe ethnicity may have played a factor — Mendoza is Hispanic, while the victims were white. They admit the flippant tweet and ensuing media storm provided little incentive for the judge to reduce a sentence.
“Just so happened that really foolish tweet really grabbed the public’s attention,” said Will Anderson, another of her attorneys. “I think the judge really wanted to make an example.”
Miami Herald writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.
Top five counties for DUI Manslaughter Convictions since 2012
Number of cases