They kill and maim with their vehicles.
A drunken driver, who was also high and unlicensed, ran a red light at 75 mph and killed a 24-year-old cancer researcher. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison but will likely be out sooner.
An unlicensed motorist so drunk his blood alcohol was nearly three times the legal limit blew through a red light doing 85, killing a 22-year-old man. The motorist had a prior DWI crash. A plea agreement calls for four years in prison for the fatal crash but he'll serve less than 2 1⁄2 if a judge approves the deal.
A driver with a suspended license hit a 23-year-old pedestrian, causing a traumatic brain injury that has forever changed her. He got 45 days.
Victims' loved ones say such punishments fall far short of justice. While sentences vary widely based on the facts of each crash and the driver's history, families and advocates contend the state justice system is too soft on the most egregious cases.
Their frustrations and trauma were rekindled this month after police said a 27-year-old — who had hit a pedestrian in a prior crash — sped through Minneapolis streets and killed five young women.
The driver, Derrick Thompson of Brooklyn Park, was suspected of being under the influence and was charged Thursday with 10 counts of criminal vehicular homicide — a common charge for killing with a vehicle in Minnesota.
He sped through a red light at 95 mph on June 16 with a rented SUV, broadsiding a sedan on Lake Street before fleeing on foot, police say. The victims killed at the scene were 17-year-old Sabiriin Ali of Bloomington, 20-year-old Sahra Gesaade of Brooklyn Center, 20-year-old Salma Abdikadir of St. Louis Park, 19-year-old Sagal Hersi of Minneapolis and 19-year-old Siham Adam of Minneapolis.
Thompson, the son of former DFL state Rep. John Thompson, pleaded guilty in 2020 for a hit-and-run in California that permanently injured a woman and received an eight-year sentence. Last January, he was released early through that state's process.
Minnesota's process can also be lax, critics say.
"The whole situation is set up for the criminal to succeed, not for victims to get justice," said Desiree Oakley, whose son Josiah died in a December crash with an unlicensed, drunk motorist.
That driver, Sylvester T. Vaughn, ran a red light in Minneapolis at 85 mph with a blood alcohol content nearly three times the legal limit.
Vaughn had hit another vehicle from behind in 2019 and was convicted of drunken driving, but a judge set aside a six-month jail sentence and put Vaughn on probation for two years.
For the Oakley crash, Vaughn pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide-gross negligence in an agreement that calls for him to receive a four-year sentence, though he is expected to serve a little more than 2 1/3 years in prison with credit for time in jail since his arrest. That's not enough time for Oakley, who also worries about the safety of the public.
Thompson got his Minnesota license on June 7, nearly five months after leaving prison. In Minnesota, there is no lifetime ban from having a driver's license.
"He should never have a driver's license again," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, director of Minnesotans for Safe Driving. But, she added, taking away a driver's license won't stop some unlicensed drivers from being on the road "and that's why we've got to turn and give them a sentence that they will remember."
Vehicular homicide or murder?
Prosecutors could elevate the charge to murder, but for a host of legal reasons, criminal vehicular homicide is a common charge — and the one that often receives scrutiny for its wide range of punishment.
The crime falls in a category of Minnesota's fourth-most severe offenses — on par with aggravated robbery and below the state's three degrees of murder charges. Criminal vehicular homicide, which can encompass reckless or drunken driving, carries a guideline sentence of about three to five years in prison, but it can be as high as 15 years for repeat offenders, according to state law and the state's sentencing guidelines set by a commission created by the Legislature.
It's possible that Thompson, if convicted and sentenced strongly on all counts, could be imprisoned for the rest of his life, several legal experts said.
But that's not the typical case.
From 2012 to 2021, 279 people were sentenced for criminal vehicular homicide, according to data from the sentencing guidelines commission. While the average sentence was four years and eight months, 44% received something less than a full prison sentence. Such decisions could have allowed the convicts to serve a portion of their time in a local jail, or be released to serve it on probation.
The reasons for the lesser punishments vary, from the age of the offender to a judge or prosecutor's view that they're truly remorseful and won't do it again, to a recommendation of leniency from the victim's family.
"Criminal vehicular homicide is a really difficult offense to sentence because there's a broad range of behavior that can happen to result in somebody's death," said Kelly Lyn Mitchell, who chairs the state's sentencing guidelines commission and serves as executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School.
"It can be somebody who makes a really stupid mistake who drops something in a car, a teenager with a clean record who drops something and takes their eyes off the road for a split second. That's very different from someone who has multiple DUIs and chooses to get in a car and drive. The courts have the job of figuring out where that falls."
Jon Cummings, founder of Minnesotans for Safe Driving, said he doesn't advocate for tighter criminal sentences broadly because each case is different.
"I work with all kinds of people who … have turned their lives around and are good, solid citizens," he said. "And [for] other ones, there's no hope for them."
The bar owner who drove drunk and killed Cummings' son in 1994 got a five-year sentence. Cummings said Minnesota has toughened policies since then, such as charging drivers with a felony if they're arrested for four DWIs within 10 years.
Not everyone thinks the end results reflect where society should be.
'A deadly weapon'
Colleen Kelly, a former Star Tribune journalist, has followed similar cases since her daughter was hit by a driver with multiple driving violations and a suspended license as she walked in Uptown in 2021. Her daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury and the driver was sentenced to 45 days in jail for the gross misdemeanor.
But her daughter's case isn't unusual, Kelly said.
"The sentencing guidelines are completely out of whack for the damage that is done to people and certainly to families when a family member is killed," Kelly said. "It really is a deadly weapon when you're driving a 4,500-pound car ... these are repeat criminals ... who have no regard for what they're doing when they're driving."
Any effort to expunge misdemeanors, she added, should exempt vehicular crimes since a driver's record can affect a later conviction for repeat offenders.
"This keeps happening again and again," Kelly said. "It is endemic."
When Kermit Miller read the news about the five young women killed on Lake Street, he recalled, "It was baffling. I was like, 'Not again.'"
His daughter, 24-year-old Ebony Miller, had come to Minnesota from the Bahamas to become a doctor, and worked as a cancer researcher at the University of Minnesota. She was killed last November when Kenneth Spencer Jr. ran a red light at 75 mph – drunk, high and unlicensed – and struck Miller's car. Spencer had been convicted five times for driving without a license in Minnesota since 2018, once traveling 104 mph in a 50 mph zone. He was sentenced on June 1 to 3 ½ years in prison for criminal vehicular homicide.
"It's tragic – it's discouraging that the sentencing in Minnesota is so light and so lax for these types of crimes," Kermit Miller said, speaking by phone from the Bahamas.
He noted that sentencing is harsher in his country, and suggested there needs to be a revision of the system when it comes to fatal crashes.
"My daughter's dead and gone, and [Spencer] is going to be out in 22 months," Miller said. "He's going to be under supervised release seeing his family. I can never see my daughter again. When I heard about that accident [that killed five women] it saddened me to the core because that could have been prevented as well."
When news of the Lake Street crash reached Brenda Valle-Chandler, she thought, Here we go again.
"It's been very hard to see it continuously happen," said Valle-Chandler.
A drunk motorist sped through a red light in February 2022 and T-boned her 25-year-old son Isiah Desmond Valle-Kirk's car – instantly killing him. The drunk driver, Salvador Juan Battles, pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide-operating a vehicle with negligence while under the influence of alcohol. He was sentenced in January to one year in jail — with credit for 126 days served — and eight years of supervised probation. Battles was also required to complete substance abuse treatment.
"It was such a mockery of justice, honestly," Valle-Chandler said. "It made me feel as soon as possible, I'm going to get my children out of here and leave. I don't want to live here anymore … I don't even have any faith in the system itself."
Staff Writer Kim Hyatt contributed to this report.