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Jury: Driver guilty of lesser charges in crash

The woman faces a 30-year sentence for the fatal collision. Tests show she was legally impaired, but she wasn't found guilty of DUI.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


INVERNESS -- A jury has ruled that Shaun McElrath was responsible for the February 2000 car wreck that claimed three lives. But the panel found her guilty of vehicular homicide, a lesser charge than the one prosecutors lodged against her: driving under the influence-manslaughter.

McElrath, 34, cried as a court clerk read the verdicts aloud. The announcement came at 10 p.m. Friday, about three hours after deliberations started.

The judge ordered bailiffs to take McElrath to the county jail, where she will stay.

"Can I just give my kids a hug?" she asked after the jury left the courtroom.

"Yes, you may," Circuit Judge Barbara Gurrola said.

The victims' families remained composed in the courtroom but had harsh words later.

"She had options. My parents did not have options," said Dr. Ruben Sierra, whose father was one of the people killed Feb. 23, 2000.

McElrath was charged with three counts of DUI-manslaughter, one each for the deaths of Nelia Rodriguez, Ruben Sierra and his wife, Sylvia Padro. She faced a fourth count, DUI causing serious bodily injury, for the injuries sustained by Mrs. Rodriguez's husband, Israel.

If found guilty as charged, McElrath could have faced a prison sentence ranging from 34 years to life. But the jury found her guilty of the lesser charges for the deaths and acquitted her outright on the fourth charge.

Defense lawyer Jim Cummins said he wasn't certain what the punishment range would be, but said his client still faces at least a 30-year prison term.

Prosecutors said McElrath drank Wild Turkey whiskey and then drove east on Dawson Drive. She ran a stop sign and collided with the car Israel Rodriguez was driving on Croft Avenue. He and his passengers were returning home from church.

The state presented scientific evidence to prove McElrath was legally impaired. Blood tests taken 90 minutes after the wreck showed her blood-alcohol level at 0.136 percent and 0.148 percent.

But Cummins attacked the evidence handling and the conclusions the state drew from it. He said the jury's decision to find McElrath not guilty for the injuries to Israel Rodriguez showed panelists were not convinced McElrath, who admitted drinking that night, was intoxicated to the point her normal faculties were impaired. "They stuck to their decision on the DUI," Cummins said.

Although the jurors clearly held McElrath responsible for the deaths, Sierra said that the verdicts disappointed him.

"I think the facts were clear," he said. "She chose to drink. She was intoxicated."

Sierra complimented prosecutors and the Citrus County Sheriff's Office but had harsh words for Cummins, who he said engaged in "reckless" conduct during the trial.

But Sierra saved his harshest sentiments for McElrath. During closing arguments, Cummins said she would have to awaken every morning and think about the lives she took.

"The price we pay," Sierra said, "is much more than that."

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