The cases are very similar. In one, a drunk driver kills a police officer. In the other the drunk driver is a police officer. But the outcomes, and the penalties, are very different.
In fact, after a Placer County jury found Eric Dungan, 27, guilty of second degree murder Tuesday in the death of Rocklin police officer Matt Redding, Dungan's family raised the question. Dungan's aunt brought up a similar case in which off-duty Sacramento police officer Jason March was drunk when he struck and killed 13-year-old Michael Ramirez in Elk Grove.
"Broad daylight ... he got vehicular manslaughter. He was a police officer. Eric's second degree," said Dungan's aunt, Liz Brooke. "Does that make sense to anyone? It doesn't make sense to us."
"Placer County is stretching the envelope to bring these cases into the murder realm," said former prosecutor Bill Portanova. "They're not embarrassed by it. They're proud of it. The other case in Sacramento was handled more like the vast majority of DUI injury cases."
The March and Dungan incidents both happened in 2005, but they have similarities. Both had blood alcohol levels around .16 to .18 -- twice the legal limit. Both drove away after hitting the victim. Neither was speeding nor driving recklessly, other than being intoxicated, before or during the crash. Neither had criminal records, nor any prior DUI convictions.
Yet there are key differences in the cases. March hit Ramirez during the afternoon on a residential street. Dungan hit Redding in the early morning hours on Highway 65. Dungan took full responsibility and expressed remorse on the stand. March never did.
March entered a plea deal to vehicular manslaughter for a five year prison sentence. Dungan was convicted at trial of both second degree murder and gross vehicular manslaughter, and is facing 15-years-to-life.
"I've never seen a second degree murder, ever, for anybody who had no prior DUI convictions. Ever," said a frustrated Michael Bowman, defense attorney for Dungan.
While prosecutors didn't comment after the verdict, Redding's father, John, said both he and his wife Marilyn "have been of the same accord that he was guilty of murder in the second degree. It was just a matter of if the facts prove it out."
Portanova says raising the bar of a drunk driving death to murder requires implied malice, a reckless disregard for human life. "Reckless driving, speeding through a residential neighborhood, blowing stop signs and so forth," he said.
"What's interesting about this case ... all the evidence seems to indicate he was doing the speed limit, and it was an unexpected suprises the officer was directing traffic in the fast lane of a highway and that the worst thing he (Dungan) was doing was text messaging at the moment he hit him," said Portanova. "The jury heard at least one other person (had) told him (Dungan) he was under the influence, and as far as this jury was concerned, that was enough. The jury did not give him the benefit of any doubts."
Portanova said Placer County is sending a strong message about drunk driving with an aggressive stance. As for Dungan's conviction for murder, "that's an issue that's going to be raised on appeal."
Portanova wouldn't guess if the conviction would stand on appeal, but said, "The courts and the legislature will tell us whether the new standard for DUI's with death is going to be murder."
As for consistency, Portanova says with juries, there will always be discrepancies, repeating a line well-known in legal circles.
"The old attorney turns to his friend and says, 'You don't go to the courts for justice. You go to court for a shot at justice.' And that's the truth," said Portanova.