Editorial: Out of jail, but trial awaits

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 13, 2006

When someone dies in a drunken driving accident, there’s public outrage — as there should be. When the victim is a child, the outrage surges exponentially. Nothing is more anguishing or infuriating than a young life snuffed out because some fool crawled behind the wheel while intoxicated.

In such cases, our first reaction is often to say let’s dispense with judicial proceedings, throw the accused into a dungeon and let him rot away, never again to endanger the public. The death of 8-year-old Patty Burgdoff of China Grove is a case that gives rise to such emotions, especially when it follows other high-profile DWI cases that have stirred similar outrage in the community.

Patty was killed Dec. 8 when the car she was riding in was struck by another vehicle on U.S. 29 near China Grove. Police charged Ross Edward Neese, 25, of Jamestown with felony death by vehicle, three counts of felony serious injury by vehicle and driving while impaired. He was released the next day under a $20,000 bond.

Some have criticized the amount of bond, arguing it doesn’t reflect the severity of the crime and allowed a suspected DWI defendant back onto the streets the next day, although his license was temporarily suspended and he’s forbidden from driving. Bear in mind, however, that the main purpose of a bond is to assure that a defendant shows up in court after pretrial release, a concept deeply ingrained in a system of justice that presumes innocence. The bond mechanism isn’t supposed to be punitive in itself, nor is it designed to keep defendants behind bars by setting prohibitively high amounts. Bonds in general are based on the degree of likelihood that a defendant might flee, a likelihood that obviously rises with the seriousness of the charge. In Rowan County and other jurisdictions, magistrates and judges work within prescribed ranges of bonds for particular classes of felony. In Neese’s case, for instance, felony death by vehicle is a “Class E” felony, with a bond range of $5,000-$45,000, while the bond range for the charge of “felony serious injury” is $2,500-$25,000. Obviously, the ranges provide some latitude. Beyond the nature of the crime, a defendant’s record may affect the bond amount, as well as whether he has a steady job and a stable family life. Realistically, jail overcrowding may be a consideration, too.

Weighed against a child’s life, any bond seems inconsequential, whether it’s $20,000 or $200,000. The real issue is whether, even after decades of outrage and advocacy, our laws and society at large treat drunken driving as severely as it merits. Because of lobbying for tougher penalties, the legislature has strengthened N.C. statutes. The charge of felony serious injury by vehicle, for instance, is a new law created in large part to give law enforcement and the judicial system another option for prosecuting drunken drivers who cause accidents. It carries a maximum sentence of almost six years for each count. Felony death by vehicle, also recently upgraded, carries a maximum sentence of eight years.

While Neese is free at the moment, if convicted and given the maximum sentences, he could be looking at upwards of 25 years in jail. When it comes to battling drunken driving, the most important number isn’t bond amount but time behind bars.