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Man guilty of murder in car crash that killed nun

Monday - 10/31/2011, 6:12pm  ET

Associated Press

MANASSAS, Va. - A judge on Monday found a Bolivian immigrant guilty of murder for causing a crash while driving drunk that killed a Benedictine nun and severely injured two others last year.

The case against Carlos Martinelly Montano, 24, drew national attention partly because of the sympathetic victims _ three elderly nuns _ but mostly because of Martinelly's immigration status. Federal authorities say Martinelly was an illegal immigrant who had been convicted of drunken driving twice previously but was never deported.

Political leaders in Prince William County, a suburban county just outside the nation's capital where illegal immigration has been a flashpoint, seized on Martinelly's case as proof that federal authorities weren't sufficiently aggressive in deporting of criminal illegal aliens.

Monday's conviction also appeared to set a legal precedent in Virginia. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys say it appears to be the first reported case in the state where the murder laws were used in this fashion to prosecute a drunken-driving fatality.

Martinelly pleaded guilty at the outset of Monday's trial to lesser charges, including involuntary manslaughter. But his lawyers strongly disputed the murder charge, saying Martinelly's actions _ while negligent _ lacked the element of malice that is required for a murder conviction.

"He did not set out to injure anyone," defense attorney Dimitri Willis said. "He was running an errand."

Prosecutors acknowledged that the death of Sister Denise Mosier, 66, who lived in a convent in Richmond, was unintentional. But they argued that Virginia law allows a murder conviction when a death occurs in furtherance of an underlying felony, and in Virginia a third conviction for driving while intoxicated is classified as a felony.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Ronald Reel also argued that "a person driving under the influence of alcohol is a mobile bomb" and that Martinelly should have foreseen the consequences of his actions.

Circuit Court Judge Lon E. Farris agreed, and convicted Martinelly of murder following a half-day trial. Martinelly waived his right to a jury and agreed to a bench trial.

"Driving under the influence is an inherently dangerous activity which the defendant voluntarily undertook" and he should have known it would result in injuries or death, the judge said.

During the trial, police officer Luis Zamora said Martinelly admitted he had been drinking for several days leading up to the Sunday morning crash, and said he was upset that his family had left him behind while they took a vacation to the beach. Officers found roughly 20 empty Coors Light cans in Martinelly's car.

The two surviving nuns also testified. Sister Connie Ruth Lupton said she remembers nothing at all about the day of the crash, and her first memory is weeks later, when the hospital took her off a ventilator. She suffered 14 broken bones and had her left thumb severed by her seat belt from the impact of the crash. She said her spine is "connected with screws and pins" and she now walks with a cane.

The nun who was driving the car on Bristow Road, Charlotte Lange, said she "remembered a car coming at me at a distance" followed by a huge impact.

"I remember hearing Connie moaning, `Oh me! Oh me!'" Lange testified. When a passer-by came to render aid, Lange insisted on calling her mother superior to let her know that she wouldn't make it to the annual retreat to which the nuns had been headed.

"I remember telling her, `We've been in a terrible head-on crash. It's not good,'" Lange said.

Mosier was pronounced dead at the scene. Martinelly and the two nuns were taken to the hospital by helicopter.

Martinelly's immigration status did not come up once during the trial. Outside of court, Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert said he does not let a defendant's immigration status affect how he pursues a case but said, "to the extent that he and others come here to enjoy the milk and honey of this country, and then thumb their noses at our laws, it bothers me."

Martinelly came to the U.S. with his family from Bolivia when he was 9. He was facing deportation proceedings at the time of the Aug. 1, 2010 crash. But his lawyers said Monday that he had a work permit at the time, and they disputed the accuracy of calling him an illegal immigrant.

One of the lawyers, Melissa Sanchez, said an appeal of the murder conviction is likely.

He will be sentenced in February. He faces up to 70 years in prison. Ebert said he expects to ask for a sentence that will exceed sentencing guidelines, and said he is not swayed by the fact that the surviving victims have publicly forgiven Martinelly.

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