Target 2 Investigates: Lawmaker inspired by Iola teen's case proposes minimum OWI homicide sentence

WAUPACA COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - The death of an Iola teen continues to be a driving force behind the push to stiffen Wisconsin's drunken driving penalties.

A proposal in the state legislature would create a new penalty for intoxicated drivers who kill another person.

In 2015, Target 2 Investigates reported how Wisconsin has a maximum penalty for OWI homicides, but the state has no minimum penalty.

That leaves it up to judges to determine how long a drunk driver charged in a fatal crash spends behind bars.

The lack of a minimum penalty became a concern for State Rep. David Murphy of Greenville.

He says he was troubled by the sentence handed down for a fatal crash in Waupaca County.

In 2012, 18-year-old Dylan Thorne of Iola was hit and killed by first offense drunk driver Heather Schmidt. Thorne was killed just hours after learning he'd passed a placement test and was heading toward a career in law enforcement.

A Waupaca County judge sentenced Schmidt to one year in jail. The time was split up, allowing Schmidt to serve her sentence over several years.

The sentence outraged Dylan Thorne's family. They say they felt Dylan's life meant nothing, emphasized by what they call a "weak" sentence.

"That's heart-breaking for the family of having to live through that, thinking your child, your loved one, isn't worth it," says Liz Thorne, mother of Dylan.

Right after the sentencing, Rep. Murphy (R-Greenville), proposed a minimum penalty bill. It would send drivers convicted in OWI homicides to prison for at least seven years.

"I don't know how I would deal with it if it had happened to me, and for that reason, I just feel like we need to send a message to people out there," Murphy said.

The bill never gained enough support in the legislature to go up for a vote.

However, Murphy did not give up. The representative and several other lawmakers are trying again. They've reduced the minimum sentence to five years in prison, hoping the bill will get more votes.

"If you harm somebody, you're going to have to pay a price, because I think if we don't get serious about this, we're just not going to get people's attention," said Rep. Murphy.

Dylan Thorne's mother believes it's a step in the right direction.

"I'm excited because I've always said, they've always discussed maximum penalties, but it's the minimums that I think would hurt a little bit more," said Liz Thorne.

Rep. Murphy says an argument against his previous bill was the cost-- that it would mean putting more people into already crowded prisons.

The assemblyman is urging lawmakers to consider not how it impacts a budget, but how it impacts families who have lost something priceless--a loved one.

"Boy, I tell you. If I had to go back to Dylan's family and tell them, yeah we could do this but it costs a little bit too much, I'd have a pretty dog-gone hard time doing that," Rep. Murphy said.

Liz Thorne hopes attention shifts back to the victim's families.

"To me, if it's a minimum five, I think people would really start to think," Thorne says.

Murphy tells Action 2 News he believes the new bill has a better chance of passing the state legislature than his previous proposal.

"I think every year, more and more members of the caucus are saying to themselves, yeah, we need to step down on some of these things," Murphy said.

An assembly committee will likely hear Liz Thorne's story during a public hearing on the bill scheduled for Thursday in Madison.

"I guess, because I'm living this nightmare and I will 'til I die, I see a different side of it, and it's hard," Thorne tells Action 2 News.



 
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