The drunken driver who killed Minnesota Timberwolves player Malik Sealy in 2000 got a stiff, eight-year prison sentence Thursday for two drunken driving violations committed since then.
Advocates praised the sentence as substantial for a case in which no one died and as a sign of the impact of a recent change in state law.
As Hennepin County District Judge Steven Pihlaja delivered the sentence, two anti-drunken driving crusaders in the audience turned to each other and said, "Wow."
Souksangouane Phengsene, 51, was sentenced after pleading guilty to drinking and driving in March on Interstate 35W near 36th Street in south Minneapolis. Through an interpreter, Phengsene said he drank 10 to 12 beers. His blood-alcohol level was above .20 percent. The legal limit is .08 percent.
Pihlaja sentenced Phengsene to the maximum 4 1/2 years on that felony. He also said Phengsene must serve at least two-thirds of the time and spend an additional 5 years on probation.
By pleading guilty, Phengsene also admitted to violating his probation for a 2006 drunken-driving arrest in Crystal, in which he had a 0.21 percent blood-alcohol level. He served less than a year in the workhouse on that offense and was given 3 1/2 years probation with the understanding that a violation could lead to prison.
Pihlaja had the option of having Phengsene serve the sentences at the same time or one after the other.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Julie Allyn asked that Pihlaja give him more time in prison. "No case is more compelling than this case," she said. "There is no better argument than this case for when defendants should receive consecutive sentences."
Pihlaja apparently agreed. Though the state prefers probation in such cases, that is overcome in this case by the need to protect the public, Pihlaja said.
Outside the courtroom, Jon Cummings, founder of Minnesotans for Safe Driving, and Diane Homa, victim advocate at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the sentence was strong. Both said they had expected him to serve significantly less time.
"I'd like to see them be that tough on all drunken-driving sentences," Homa said.
Phengsene was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide after driving the wrong way on Hwy. 100 and killing Sealy in a head-on collision. His blood-alcohol level then was 0.19 percent. He was released from prison in July 2003.
In 2006, he was arrested again. Because he had pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide, not drunken driving, in Sealy's death, the earlier conviction did not add to his sentence.
Minnesotans for Safe Driving successfully got the law changed so subsequent offenses would be felonies.
Cummings said if Phengsene had committed the new violations before the change, he would have been sent back for just another year in the workhouse.
In July, a judge sentenced Kevin Roban of St. Paul to 11 years in prison for a 2006 drunken-driving crash in which two people were killed. Advocates said that was longest such sentence in Hennepin County.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747