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Heather Howell’s demeanor didn’t do her any favors.

The 31-year-old Santa Rosa woman, convicted in September of second-degree murder in the 2012 DUI death of an innocent man whose car she struck while angrily speeding after her boyfriend’s motorcycle, was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison Monday.

A murder conviction for a DUI-related death is relatively rare but one prosecutors seek in particularly egregious cases such as Howell’s, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. County prosecutors have won at least a half-dozen such convictions, and at least two defendants currently face DUI-related murder charges.

In court Monday morning, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge minced no words in his assessment of Howell, whom he observed during two jury trials for the July 2012 fiery crash that killed 56-year-old Jesse Garcia.

“I had the best seat in the house,” LaForge told Howell after she pleaded for a second chance, a chance she said she wanted to use to help others through speaking in public about her tribulations.

“From my perspective, I see things that others may not,” he said. “I see defendants’ actions during the trial their attorneys don’t even see.

“I saw what I believe to be tears that were not genuine. I believe that there were times throughout the trial when Ms. Howell would cry – I’m not sure, again, if real – to garner some sort of sympathy from the jury.”

He wasn’t swayed by Howell’s handwritten statement, which she read aloud from a piece of notebook paper during the hearing, saying she was remorseful and was sorry for causing the Garcia family pain.

“It’s hard for me to ignore what I saw for weeks: some sort of manipulation, that was inappropriate – and was not someone expressing sorrow for anyone, except themselves,” he said.

Witnesses testified during the trials that Howell pumped her fist, yelled “yee-haw” out her car window as she chased her boyfriend’s motorcycle, and at one point held her hand out the window in the shape of a gun.

Jurors, who took just 4½ hours to convict Howell after the second trial, said they didn’t like her attitude in the immediate aftermath of the fatal crash and during a recorded police interview.

The jury convicted Howell of second-degree murder after a previous jury convicted her on two lesser counts but hung on the more serious charge.

Howell had used cocaine, marijuana and had a 0.11 percent blood-alcohol level when she got behind the wheel of her car, angry at her boyfriend and chasing him almost six miles down busy streets, running red lights and passing other cars on the shoulder, prosecutors argued.

On Hall Road, Howell slammed into the back of Garcia’s 1969 Triumph convertible. The small sports car flipped, trapping Garcia, who died under the burning car. Howell and her boyfriend, Tony Kraus, weren’t injured.

About 10 members of Garcia’s extended family attended the hearing but declined to speak to reporters. In two letters read aloud in court, the family spoke of the heartbreak of losing their beloved husband, father, uncle and friend.

Garcia, a Santa Rosa resident who worked as a manager at a Richmond metal recycling company, was a hardworking, selfless, generous man of faith, “the polar opposite” of Howell, they said.

Howell’s attorney, Kristine Burk, asked LaForge and others to keep an open mind about Howell, saying that she shouldn’t be “demonized” or reduced to “her worst moment.”

Ravitch, who as a deputy district attorney in the early 1990s won one of Sonoma County’s first DUI-murder convictions, said the justice system and the community in general have become less tolerant of impaired driving.

“It used to be a slap on the wrist,” she said. “But there has been an evolution of thinking in driving under the influence and the dangerousness of it. We know we have to hold these types of people accountable for the damage they cause.

“Every time somebody gets behind the wheel when they are impaired, everyone on the road is at risk.”

A 1983 state Supreme Court decision made it possible for prosecutors to charge DUI-related deaths as second-degree murders, using the legal concept of “implied malice,” that the defendant knew the deadly risks but disregarded them.

“A change in law is not enough,” Ravitch said. “There needs to be a change in mindset of juries. In Sonoma County, fortunately, our jurors have supported murder charges in cases that have engaged in this behavior.”

Because Howell had a previous conviction for drunken driving, prosecutors sought the murder charge, with prosecutor Anne Masterson arguing that she knew the potentially fatal risks and consciously ignored them that day.

“Any time anybody who has a prior DUI conviction engages in this type of behavior and takes the life of another, we will charge it as a murder case if the facts support it,” Ravitch said. “These are people who know the dangerousness of driving under the influence. The cavalier attitude of this defendant was particularly remarkable in that regard.”

In 2007, another tragic DUI death spurred prosecutors to seek a murder conviction.

That year, Joseph Lynchard of Santa Rosa pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after killing bicyclist Kathryn Black while he was intoxicated. The then-74-year-old, who had a history of drinking and driving, was sentenced to 15 years to life.

His was the fifth DUI-related murder conviction in Sonoma County since 1990.

Earlier that year, Arnold Silva, 45, was sentenced to 43 years to life in prison for causing a 2006 crash that killed Marian Tumbaga of Windsor. He was convicted of second-degree murder and other charges.

In 2002, Christopher Kazas was found guilty of DUI murder in the death of Michael Bireschi of Santa Rosa, who died when Kazas ran a red light at 73 mph and barreled into his van at a west Santa Rosa intersection. At the time, it had been more than a decade since a local jury found a defendant guilty of murder in a traffic fatality. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Currently in Sonoma County courts, there are at least two defendants facing second-degree murder charges in DUI deaths.

Rohnert Park police said Rafael Prieto-Gonzalez, 23, was driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs in March when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed broadside into a tree on Commerce Boulevard, killing a passenger. Prieto-Gonzalez was on probation for a previous DUI.

Andrew Tungseth, 35, had three prior drunken-driving convictions and a suspended drivers license when he is alleged to have struck and killed yoga instructor Victor Buxbaum, 52, as Buxbaum walked his dog along Stony Point Road in July.

Both men have court hearings next month.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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