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Victims' families speak out after deadly Seward Highway wreck

The woman critically injured 13 days ago in a Seward Highway wreck blamed on a drunken driver is doing better but remains unconscious and doesn't know that her fiance, who is also the father of her infant daughter, was killed, her family said Tuesday.

Family members representing her and the man who died, speaking at the Victims for Justice office on Fireweed Lane, called for tougher DUI laws and stricter punishment. They particularly took aim at Lori Phillips, who has been arrested for drunken driving four other times and is now accused of murder and DUI in the Nov. 5 wreck that killed Louis Clement, 23, and critically injured Joyua Stovall, 29.

"She might be behind bars, but she's breathing," Clement's mother, Brenda Clement, said in a tearful exchange. "My son is gone for good, forever, and this woman might walk out of jail free. I'm sorry, but I don't think that she should be able to get out and enjoy breathing and her child when I can't do that. I don't think that's right."

Clement was driving a Toyota sedan south on the highway in the darkness of that evening with Stovall in the passenger seat when Phillips' SUV crossed the center line and collided with them head-on.

Police say Phillips, 55, had a blood-alcohol level more than four times the legal limit for driving. She was treated and released from a hospital and has been charged with second-degree murder, first-degree assault, driving under the influence and driving with a revoked license. She remains jailed at Highland Mountain Correctional Center.

But the victims' families say Phillips shouldn't have been out on the road at all.

"How many times does a person have to get caught drinking and driving for it to stop?" said Clement's father, Mark Clement. "Even if they don't have a driver's license in their hand, they can still get behind the wheel of a vehicle. The penalties need to be more severe."

Royal Bidwell and his wife Nancy, co-founders of the Forget Me Not Mission, an anti-drunken driving nonprofit, suggested Alaska law be tightened to take away licenses of first-time DUI offenders for one year, five years on a second offense and forever on a third offense. They also suggested making driving drunk on a revoked license a felony offense.

"There's no question that some drastic changes are needed, and we realized that politics being what it is, it's sometimes hard to get the drastic changes made," Royal Bidwell said. "Sometimes you have to take it in smaller steps."

Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, said he doesn't support that specific proposal but does support tougher DUI laws. Offenders are more likely to fight felony charges than misdemeanors, and lawmakers need to balance protecting the public against penalties that won't inundate the judicial system, he said.

"If you ratchet up penalties for DUIs and driving on a suspended license, you may or may not change behavior of the people that are breaking the law, but you certainly will diminish the ability of the court system and related agencies to address other crimes," Ramras said. "You can't have more penalties unless you have correlating growth in government."

Under current Alaska law, the penalty for a first DUI is a mandatory 72 hours in jail, a $1,500 fine, license revocation for 90 days. From there the minimum penalties go up, and a person's third DUI in 10 years is a felony punishable by a minimum penalty of 120 days in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Despite Phillips having been arrested on five DUI charges, however, she was never charged with felony DUI because she has so far only been convicted of drunken driving in two of the cases -- one in Washington from 1986 and in a 2005 Anchorage case. She pleaded a 1983 DUI charge down to a traffic violation and now has two 2009 cases pending.

Phillips was out on bail at the time of the wreck and under court order not to drive or drink alcohol.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anch., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the case presented a "horrific set of facts" and that lawmakers need to reexamine the books.

The Legislature last year approved a law requiring an ignition interlock device for everyone convicted of drunken driving beginning Jan. 1 this year, French said. The device makes it impossible to start a vehicle if the driver's breath tests above a predetermined level. It is mandatory for 12 months for first offenses and longer for subsequent violations.

But Phillips has not yet been convicted on her 2009 DUIs and would not have been required to have the device at the time of the wreck, police Lt. Dave Parker said.

Stovall's brother, Jamin Stovall, said his sister has started breathing with less help from a machine and that a potentially fatal blood clot near her heart has gotten smaller. But she remains heavily sedated with a broken body.

"Every day is a 50-50 chance for my sister and I think, 'What if we lose her?' " said Stovall's sister, Felicia Jackson. "And then if she does make it, her hips are broken, her pelvis is broken, her legs are broken. She has to learn to walk again, she has to learn life all over again. And then I keep thinking about my nieces. Janiece, she's not even 1 yet. She's not going to know her father."

Clement's family is holding a memorial service for him today. He has been cremated and his ashes will be spread in Alaska in the spring, his family said. The Forget Me Not Mission has set up accounts at Alaska USA Federal Credit Union to help cover expenses for the families.


Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

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