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Fatal DUI accidents: What determines murder or manslaughter charges?

Laurel Andrews

Stacey Allen Graham faces charges of second-degree murder following an accident on Friday in which he allegedly hit and killed two 15-year-old girls in Anchorage while driving drunk. If convicted, Graham will face at least twice the jail time under the murder charges as he would under a lesser manslaughter charge. Some fatal DUI accidents result in manslaughter charges, so why are prosecutors pursuing murder charges in his case? 

To answer that question, one has to look first at Alaska’s statutes, assistant district attorney Joshua Kindred said.

Alaska doesn’t have a vehicular homicide statute, which in many states outlines the penalties for deaths involving a vehicle. In Alaska, the prosecutors are instead left with a “judgment call when something crosses the line from manslaughter to murder [in the second degree].”

The decision, therefore, stems from the facts surrounding a case. “Every case is different,” Kindred said. “It’s not an exact science.”

The second-degree murder charge against Graham is classified as “extreme indifference” under the Alaska Statutes, where "the person knowingly engages in conduct that results in the death of another person under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to the value of human life."

Simply put, “it means extremely reckless behavior,” assistant district attorney Dan Shorey said.

Kindred wouldn’t speak directly to the factors that caused the DA’s office to pursue murder charges against Graham. Generally speaking, however, factors such as how elevated a person’s blood alcohol level was, and whether they have a history of drunk driving will play a role in whether they are charged with murder. Kindred pointed to the Lori Phillips case, in which Phillips, who had a history of drunk driving when she was involved in a fatal accident on the Seward Highway, was charged with murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Graham, 31, has been charged with two counts of second-degree murder following a vehicle collision that killed two teenage girls who were walking home on a paved bike path after shopping for back-to-school items on Friday evening. The accident occurred near Abbott Road and 88th Street on the south side of Alaska’s largest city. Victims Brooke McPheters and Jordyn Durr were pronounced dead at the scene.

Preliminary tests indicate that Graham’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit of .08 at the time of the crash, a fact which may play a role in whether the grand jury decides if he was acting extremely recklessly.

The jury considers four major factors in determining whether a person acted extremely recklessly, Shorey said. The first is whether the behavior had any social use -- for instance, if a husband was driving drunk, but was driving his pregnant wife to the hospital, that may be seen as having some social utility. The second factor is how big of a risk a person was taking. Third is the defendants’ knowledge of the risk, and lastly, the jury looks at whether the defendant took any precautions to minimize that risk.

If convicted of murder in the second degree, Graham will face a sentence two to three times longer than a manslaughter conviction. For manslaughter charges, convicted first-time felony offenders face seven to 11 years in prison, at the judge’s discretion. Murder in the second degree garners sentences of 20 to 30 years.

While indictment charges may be modified before prosecutors take the case to the grand jury, depending on any new information that unfolds as police reports roll in, Kindred said the DA’s office feels “comfortable presenting murder in the second degree” to the jury in this case.

The district attorney’s office will have to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt that it was egregious,” Kindred said.

Graham remained in the hospital on Monday, receiving treatment for non-life threatening injuries. Once Graham is discharged, he will be arrested and arraigned in court in Anchorage.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com