Murder conviction for drunk driver sends message just as holidays start

Wheeling (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police)
Wheeling (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - When a Mecklenburg County jury convicted a drunk driver of second-degree murder on Tuesday, the verdict sent a message

"This community is tired of those that choose to drive impaired. They are an active bullet out there on the streets. There are people maimed, killed every day because of the recklessness of those who chose to drive drunk," Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray said. "Having 12 jurors decide that that was malice aforethought to drink and to drive in that way was a challenge and we were glad they came back and convicted on second-degree."

Investigators told jurors that in January 2016, Gregory Wheeling had a prior DWI, was on a restriction of .04, but drank more alcohol than he was allowed to, took over the driving from the designated driver, drove between 51 and 63 mph in a 35 mph zone of South Boulevard while weaving in and out between cars, before he hit and killed Kelli Putnam.

The Judge sentenced Wheeling to serve between 13 and 16.5 years in prison.

The District Attorney's Office says prosecutors have charged other drunk drivers with second-degree murder. They say "it not unusual but it's rare."

But were prosecutors surprised jurors saw the case they way they did?

"I think the jury listened to the evidence. They listened closely. They deliberated a long time and they said that this was malice," Murray said. "If you're going to make those decisions and you're going to be that reckless that you knew, you understood the consequence could be you murdering somebody."

Tuesday's verdict and sentence were handed down just as one of the most dangerous times to drive is starting.

The National Highway Safety Administration says the Thanksgiving holiday weekend tends to see a lot of collisions because of the volume of traffic on the roads and the high consumption of alcohol by people celebrating.

According to the North Carolina Highway Patrol, there were 1,923 collisions during the 2016 Thanksgiving weekend {Wednesday to Sunday}. Troopers say 17 people died during that time last year.

Investigators say the contributing factors for that deadly Thanksgiving weekend on the roads were no seat belts, speed, impaired driving, distracted driving.

"Obviously you have more vehicles on the roadway so yes the chances or probability of you being in a collision are obviously higher with more vehicles on the roadway," North Carolina Highway Trooper Ray Pierce said. "More chances of being in a collision are obviously there so is it a busy travel day or more dangerous? Obviously with more vehicles on the road – yes."

Troopers are asking people to drive with some common sense.

"We say it every year – wear your seat belt. Make the occupants in your vehicle wear a seat belt. Take your time. Know where you're going. Plan your routes ahead of time. Reduce your speed," Trooper Pierce said. "We ask every year –if you do get somewhere and do consume some alcohol, take advantage of the many ways to get home. Call a taxi. Call a friend. Stay at that residence. Don't attempt to drive home."

The timing of the Wheeling verdict should be a strong reminder of the consequences of drinking and driving.

"This verdict I think sent an important message and that is just going out and saying you're having a few drinks and you are driving means not only just a DWI but you kill or maim someone, "D-A Murray said. "You could be in jail for a long time. So the message is don't drink and drive. There are other alternatives out there."

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