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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 14th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 2 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 2

DUI deaths lead to second-degree murder charges for Santa Maria man

By BRENNA SWANSTON

The driver in a Feb. 6 single-vehicle rollover crash that killed two Santa Maria women pleaded not guilty to all his charges, including two for second-degree murder, at his March 6 arraignment.

Cameron Oliver, 25, is charged with the murders of Leann Stauffer and Tricia Jensen, plus one count of driving with blood alcohol content above the legal limit of 0.08 percent and three special allegations, according to the criminal complaint. The crash also left 35-year-old Brian Freeborn, a third passenger from Santa Maria, with minor injuries.

Addison Steele, defense attorney for Oliver, declined to specify to the Sun how the passengers were connected to each other or where they were going. He did disclose that Freeborn was dating one of the female passengers, and Oliver was dating the other.

Under most circumstances, a DUI incident causing death warrants some type of vehicular manslaughter charge, according to California law. But in a press release announcing Oliver’s charges, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said that because “specific factual and legal circumstances” were alleged, “the driver will be charged with murder.”

The press release didn’t detail Oliver’s specific circumstances, but Steele explained that Oliver’s case falls into a special category because he had already been convicted of a DUI offense.

Oliver’s prior DUI conviction occurred in June 2014 in San Diego County, for which he was still on probation at the time of the Feb. 6 crash. Steele said that because Oliver already had one DUI, California law could assume “implied malice” with any deaths caused by subsequent drunk driving incidents.

Implied malice means that the perpetrator had intent to kill, even if they didn’t necessarily plan it out ahead of time or weigh the pros and cons, Steele said—and that’s enough to justify a second-degree murder charge.

He said that in law school, implied malice is often likened to a person driving a speedboat who sees swimmers in the lake and decides to plow the boat straight through them anyway.

“You don’t actually intend to kill them, but you know perfectly well that what you’re doing would kill them,” Steele told the Sun. “You just didn’t give a shit.”

When Oliver allegedly got behind the wheel with alcohol in his system during the early morning hours following Superbowl Sunday, he became like that speedboat driver. Because of his prior DUI conviction, he should have been aware of the dangers of driving while intoxicated.

“You’re being warned that driving drunk is inherently dangerous and if you kill somebody driving drunk, then you can be charged with murder,” Steele said. “Isn’t that the same as driving your speedboat through the swimmers?”

In the case of a drunk driving incident, a second-degree murder charge is known as a “Watson murder,” named after a 1983 California Supreme Court case. The case determined a drunk driver who caused a fatal car crash warranted a second-degree murder charge, according to the article “People v. Watson: Drunk Driving Homicide—Murder or Enhanced Manslaughter” in the California Law Review.

“The court found that there was a rational ground for concluding that the defendant had acted wantonly and with a conscious disregard for human life,” author Mark Levin stated in the Review article.

Levin went on to argue that the court failed to specify when exactly a drunk driver reaches the level of implied malice.

“It fails to provide needed guidance to the lower courts, provides an opportunity for discriminatory application of the law, and fails to ensure that the defendant’s conduct posed a high risk of causing death,” Levin stated.

Steele agreed that the logic behind the Watson murder case was “silly,” because it assumes that in order for a drunk driver to consciously disregard human life from a legal standpoint, they must have been previously convicted of driving while under the influence.

Everybody knows that you can kill someone if you drive drunk, Steele said. He added that in most incidents where the Watson murder precedent applies, the driver has several DUIs.

But Oliver’s murder charges aren’t the only criminal counts on his plate. He also faces a felony charge for driving with a blood alcohol content exceeding the legal limit, causing bodily injury to Freeborn.

According to the complaint, Oliver’s blood alcohol content exceeded 0.19 percent, earning him a special allegation, and he was driving in excess of 125 miles per hour, earning him another. He received a third special allegation for the previous conviction of a DUI offense.

Steele said Oliver pleaded not guilty to all counts.

“We enter a not guilty plea, we start the process going, and it’s after that that we start talking to the [District Attorney] and seeing if we can get it resolved or, if not, figuring out when we can have a trial,” Steele said.

Stauffer and Jensen, both 37, were mothers of two and three children, respectively. In response to their deaths, community members donated funds to support their families through GoFundMe campaigns—each of which raised more than $20,000—and fundraisers by local businesses, including Ricky’s House of Pizza in Orcutt and The Swiss in Santa Maria.

Stauffer’s celebration of life took place on Feb. 13, and Jensen’s on Feb. 16.

Oliver’s case was continued to April 17. 

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at bswanston@santamariasun.com.




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