Manslaughter case sparks debate about severity of DWI punishment
March 8, 2014 at 9:08 p.m.
Updated March 9, 2014 at 10:10 p.m.
During the early morning hours of Feb. 27, McDonald's employees notified police about a suspected drunken driver.
The man they were concerned about had been released from the county jail hours before.
When police arrived to investigate, he tried to outrun them, making it a few blocks before colliding with another car, killing its driver, Cynthia Partida.
Police think the man, Christopher Cordil-Cortinas, was driving drunk - again.
A three-time convicted DWI offender, Cordil-Cortinas' actions set off a debate about whether repeat DWI offenders should be dealt harsher punishments.
"I will tell you one of Mrs. Partida's relatives called us for services, and I listened to his voicemail five times because I just couldn't believe what I was hearing," said Melissa Montgomery.
Montgomery is the manager of victim services for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in South Texas. She'd like to be out of the job, but in Texas, it isn't until someone is convicted of driving while intoxicated a third time, a felony, that he or she faces sanctions with real teeth, she said.
And sometimes, consequences are delayed, especially in Bexar County, where first-time offenders suspected of drunken driving are allowed to plead guilty to obstruction of a highway - intoxication, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Texas needs to be aggressive about DWIs from the get-go, she said.
"MADD has found that a drunken driver drives an average of 87 times before they are ever stopped by law enforcement," Montgomery said.
During the early morning hours of Oct. 10, 2010, Cordil-Cortinas drunkenly plowed his mom's 1995 Ford Taurus station wagon into a telephone pole on Airline Road, causing hundreds of dollars in damage. An onlooker chased him to Stratford apartments, where he was detained until police arrived, according to a police report.
Montgomery wondered why that crash coupled with the fact that Cordil-Cortinas repeatedly was caught driving without a license, driving without an ignition interlock device and being out past curfew did not give the latest judge presiding over his case pause.
A judge should have sentenced Cordil-Cortinas to two years in prison and six years probation for his third DWI, not four years probation, she said.
"It doesn't have to be an all or nothing situation," Montgomery said.
Since 2011, Victoria County has opted to put misdemeanor DWI offenders in probation over incarceration at a higher rate than the state average, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.
Seventy-nine people convicted of DWI a second time went to probation while 37 went to jail.
The numbers did not surprise Victoria County Criminal District Attorney Stephen Tyler, who said in the past five years, the pendulum has swung to treating DWI offenders.
He would like to study the effectiveness of DWI court, a program championed by former Court-at-Law judges Laura Weiser and Juan Velasquez III. It is just one of many treatment options the probation department offers. The program seeks to get to the root of an offender's alcoholism and meets with him or her on a biweekly basis.
"You've got to factor in the risk assumed by the public," Tyler said. "Although they haven't all turned out this way, they all could potentially. Maybe we need to appreciate that greater risk involved when people aren't locked up."
Cordil-Cortinas had a blood alcohol content of .084 when arrested for his third DWI, according to court records.
Jurors empaneled for a DWI case like to see as much forensic evidence as possible, and a police car dashboard camera video malfunctioned during Cordil-Cortinas' arrest. Even when given everything, jurors are sympathetic because they've indulged in alcohol before, too, Tyler said.
"Most of the time, when probation is offered on cases, it's because there is a historic basis for it," he said. "Even with those aggravating facts, it was our opinion that if we went to a jury trial, he would likely get probation.
"I'm not here to say that we didn't make a mistake in that plea; all I'm saying is we followed normal protocol procedures. What we did was not unheard of, and it was kind of typical," he added.
Tyler intends to charge Cordil-Cortinas with murder, intoxication manslaughter and evading with a vehicle causing death.
Probation often holds offender's feet to the fire longer, and it does include some jail time, said County Court-at-Law 2 Judge Daniel Gilliam.
He is on a team that includes treatment providers from Mid-Coast Family Services, Gulf Bend Center and Billy T. Cattan Recovery Outreach. The team meets with offenders qualified for the DWI court on a biweekly basis.
It seeks to get to the root of an offenders' problem, whereas jail time might only stop it temporarily.
"It's not a hug-a-thug-type program," he said.
Gilliam did not handle Cordil-Cortinas' case, and Cordil-Cortinas was not a part of the DWI court program. Cordil-Cortinas did, however, receive a certificate of completion of a court-ordered alcohol education program Aug. 8, 2008, and entered the out-patient alcohol and drug rehabilitation program at Treatment Associates in Victoria multiple times.
Probation also allows money to be paid to the court over time that may otherwise never be collected if the person was serving time, said DWI attorney Don Crawford, who said it was unfair to make generalizations about DWI cases because each is different.
"Probation allows for the jails to be available for maybe a more crucial violent offender than someone who drank three beers on a Saturday night," he said.
Plea agreements make a prosecutors' workload manageable, and maybe Cordil-Cortinas would have been worse than he is now if he hadn't received probation and gotten treatment, Crawford said.
"If the first rehab program doesn't work, where do you draw the line? Do you give him two? Do you give him three? At what point do you give up on the person?" Crawford asked.