This drunken driver got a raw deal: only 18 years in prison

Jan. 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Christopher Linton was drunk when he blasted through a red light and the lives of a Phoenix family.

For this, he got 18 years in prison. Never mind that it was his first offense. Never mind that he owned up to the charges. Never mind that he's the son of a police officer, or a former Boy Scout who was putting himself through school.

He got 18 years in the slammer.

Now, he's appealing. The sentence, he claims, was a raw deal. Actually, I agree.

Which is why I hope that Senate Bill 1123 has a shot in the Legislature.

For a while now, the state's been advertising "DUI, Expect the Max." I figure it's about time we made it more than a slogan, don't you?

Linton, an Arizona State University senior, had just finished a final project on April 28, 2004, and was drinking vodka in his Tempe apartment. No worries. None, that is, until he agreed to meet a friend at Desert Ridge in north Phoenix.

Wendy and Thomas Ford and their children, 10-year-old Haley and 8-year-old Patrick had just left a birthday dinner for Wendy's sister at Pinnacle Peak Patio. Wendy was driving because Thomas had had a couple of drinks.

As they headed west on Pinnacle Peak, Linton was rocketing north on Miller. Police say he was going 57 mph to 60 mph when he torpedoed through that red light and into the side of the Fords' van.

Wendy, 37, died there on the road. Haley hung on for 20 days. Thomas spent five weeks in a coma. He'll never be the same but then neither will Patrick, who had the fewest injuries and the most scars.

He got to watch his mother die and kneel beside his sister as she, too, left him. He got to wonder if his dad was coming back and whether life would ever be the same.

Naturally, Linton wasn't hurt. Police say he was drunk nearly three times over.

He rejected an offer of 14 to 18 years in prison. Instead, he pleaded guilty to all charges, figuring he could beg for leniency and finagle the minimum: seven years.

The Ford family, what's left of it, had to fight to make sure that didn't happen.

"It was the third worst day of my life," said Doryce Norwood, who lost her daughter and her granddaughter to Linton. "We sat in a courtroom for 4 hours, learning what a good boy Linton was. It was cruel."

SB 1123 was Norwood's idea. The bill would mandate 25 years in prison for any drunken driver who kills a child.

Norwood hopes to spare other grieving families the insult of having to put on a campaign to put away the drunk who killed someone they love. She thinks it might also make the next guy stop and think.

SB 1123 passed its first test Monday, clearing the Judiciary Committee, 5-3, amid questions about whether it's worse to kill a child than an adult. That seems easily remedied. Apply it to both.

"I wish I could say it's going to deter drunk drivers," said Sen. Bill Brotherton, who voted against the bill. "But these things don't deter drunk drivers."

All the more reason to get these menaces off the streets for as long as possible.

Linton got a pitiful nine years for killing Wendy Ford and nine more for killing Haley. He got nothing for the injuries to Thomas and Patrick.

Linton initially claimed he was pleading guilty to spare the victims the ordeal of a trial. Now he wants a redo. He's appealed the judgment, saying he never would have pleaded guilty had he known the judge would give him separate, nine-year punishments for each person he killed.

"A manifest injustice," I believe his attorney called it.

No kidding.

Reach Roberts at or (602) 444-8635.

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