A cane in his hand, the man approached the front of the conference room. Behind him, a picture of a demolished truck appeared on an overhead screen.
A dark-haired woman handed him a microphone as he faced the audience of 100 people.
“My name is Doug Miner,” he said. “And I’m an alcoholic.”
Miner explained how the photo of his truck was taken after he drove drunk in 1997 and crashed into a wall in Portland. He wasn’t supposed to live. Today, the victim of a traumatic brain injury has short-term memory problems and has had to teach himself basic motor skills.
“Everything I do, the doctors said I couldn’t do,” the 43-year-old Vancouver man said. “I had to grow up all over again.”
Miner shared his story to show the terrible potential effects of drinking and driving. His audience mostly consisted of DUI defendants who had been court-ordered to attend Clark County’s victim impact panel class.
The DUI victim impact panel program, which reaches approximately 2,400 people a year, isn’t new; it’s been offered in Clark County for 20 years. Still, it comes with added importance now, proponents say, because of stiffer penalties for DUI drivers who kill.
Last month, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a bill that raises the stakes for those convicted of DUI vehicular homicide to the same punishment as first-degree manslaughter. The sentence for a first-time offender used to be 31 to 41 months in prison. Now, offenders face 6- to 8-year terms.
The old penalties were “ridiculous,” said Darvin Zimmerman, a Clark County District Court judge who spoke at an April 16 victim impact panel class.
In 1981, for instance, the sentencing range was only 15 to 20 months.
“The Legislature has changed that as the years have gone on,” he said.
The judge said that in Oregon, an impaired driver who causes a crash that kills multiple people can face substantially more time for each subsequent death. That’s not the case in Washington. He noted the case of Fivea Sharipoff, a Salem woman sentenced to 16 years in prison for killing two women, including a Vancouver resident, on Interstate 5 in 2007. Had the crash occurred in Washington, she would have faced about 3 years in prison under previous sentencing guidelines.
Before her arrest, Sharipoff had been court-ordered to attend Clark County’s victim impact panel class, Zimmerman said.
“You don’t want to be the cause of such an awful memory,” the judge said.
A living memory
Miner and another victim of a DUI crash, Sheryl Morales, still live their awful memories.
Unlike Miner, Morales was not drinking and driving. She was driving north of Battle Ground 33 years ago when an intoxicated teenager — driving 88 mph — ran a stop sign.
Morales had to be extricated by emergency personnel.
Speaking to the victim impact panel class, Morales said she has no recollection of the crash and details of stories from other people. She said that like Miner, she suffered a severe head injury and had to relearn simple tasks.
“I had to be taught to talk, to walk and to remember the alphabet,” she said. “The little things that you take for granted didn’t exist for me.”
The driver responsible was not convicted of DUI, Morales said, but of failing to yield the right of way.
“The girl was not affected,” she said.
The perception of drinking and driving has changed over the past few decades since Morales’ crash. And those who attend the DUI victim impact panel class appear more contrite, Zimmerman said.
“I would say that people are more aware that it’s not as acceptable to get a DUI as it might have been in past years,” the judge said by email.
Still, the judge said of the ongoing reform of Washington’s laws: “We’re not quite there.”