An illegal immigrant who fatally struck a Benedictine nun while driving drunk was found guilty in Prince William County on Monday of felony murder — a case that sparked outrage in a county at the forefront of debates on local enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Carlos A. Martinelly Montano, 24, faces up to 70 years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 3 on the murder charge and a host of lesser related charges to which he pleaded guilty earlier in the day.
The charges stemmed from an Aug. 1, 2010, crash in which Martinelly Montano struck a car carrying Sister Denise Mosier, 66, as she was traveling to a retreat at the Benedictine Monastery in Bristow, Va.
Martinelly Montano, who entered the country illegally with his family from Bolivia in 1996, had twice been convicted on drunken-driving charges before the accident. After the second conviction in 2008, he was released by the county into the custody of the Department of Homeland Security and was awaiting a deportation hearing when the crash occurred.
Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart, who at the time of the incident accused President Obama and Congress of having "blood on their hands," said Monday that the case emphasizes the continued need for strong illegal-immigration-enforcement laws.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "What I don't want people to think is, 'Well, we got this one,' and the issue is resolved. It's not. This is just a small, one-man example of the dangerous illegal aliens in America who are released by the federal government instead of deported."
Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert called it a "tragic case all around."
Mr. Ebert said he could remember cases against illegal immigrants in which charges were dropped on the condition that the accused be deported — only to have them return soon afterward.
"I don't concern myself with the immigration status anymore," he said. "We have to enforce the laws whether they're illegal immigrants or not."
Martinelly Montano's attorneys disputed that their client should be characterized as an illegal immigrant, saying that at the time of the crash he carried a valid work permit.
Martinelly Montano had used the document when applying for an identification card.
In September 2010, shortly after the accident, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell ordered the state Department of Motor Vehicles to stop accepting an Employment Authorization Document, or work permit, as proof of legal status.
A Homeland Security Department investigation into the Martinelly Montano case determined that the Justice Department several times had delayed deportation hearings, even as he had several minor run-ins with the law in 2009 and 2010 that were not reported to the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Martinelly Montano on Monday morning pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, two counts of maiming as a result of driving while intoxicated, driving on a revoked license and a third drunken-driving charge within five years.
He opted for a non-jury trial on the murder charge, and both prosecution and defense attorneys said they thought it was the first time a drunken-driving fatality was prosecuted under state murder laws.
Officer Luis Zamora testified that Martinelly Montano admitted he had been drinking and authorities found numerous empty cans of Coors Light in the man's car.
The trial also included testimony from Sisters Charlotte Lange and Connie Ruth Lupton, who were in the car with Ms. Mosier and are still recovering from the accident.
Ms. Lange testified that while she is back at work, she now has to put a lift in one of her shoes because one leg is longer than the other, and Ms. Lupton now walks with a cane and lost her left thumb in the accident.
"He wasn't seeking to injure the sisters," said Martinelly Montano's attorney, Dimitri Willis. "He wasn't seeking to injure anyone else on that road."
Mr. Willis said that Martinelly Montano sent the nuns a Christmas card last year, and that he recorded an apology to them immediately after the incident. The nuns have written him in jail, Mr. Willis said.
"I appreciate their feelings and their teaching and their profession, but … the law is what the law is," Mr. Ebert said.
After the crash, the county filed two lawsuits against the federal government — one demanding that the Department of Homeland Security release a report detailing the circumstances behind Martinelly Montano's case and another seeking the disposition of the roughly 4,000 illegal immigrants it has turned over to ICE since 2008.
Under Prince William County law, enacted during a massive crackdown on illegal immigrants in the county in 2007, police officers are required to check the immigration status of everyone arrested.
Original proposals called on law-enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected was in the country illegally and for the county to deny services to those who could not prove they were in the country legally.
Mr. Stewart, the architect of the law, said he would like to see provisions that authorize Prince William County police to enforce some immigration laws expanded statewide.
"If you don't require it, they're not going to do it," he said of officers' checking immigration status.
The topic has been divisive in Virginia and across the country.
Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, applied in August 2010 for authority to deputize Virginia State Police to perform some immigration-enforcement duties and last month criticized the Obama administration for delaying the state's application.
Meanwhile, across the border in the District, Mayor Vincent C. Gray last month signed a measure reiterating the city's policy for officers not to ask immigration status or to enforce federal immigration laws.
In Alabama, a federal judge in September upheld most parts of a state law that is toughest in the country, including provisions that resemble those defeated in Prince William County that allow law enforcement officers to try to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally.
Even within Virginia, there is disagreement over whether local jurisdictions should be enforcing federal immigration laws. Arlington County has attempted to opt out of the federal Secure Communities program, expected to be implemented nationwide by 2013.
Under the program, all people arrested have their fingerprints scanned at local jails, which share the scans with the FBI and ICE. Anyone found to be in the country illegally is turned over to ICE for deportation proceedings.
ICE says that in January 2009 — after Martinelly Montano's second drunken-driving conviction — it changed its policy regarding the apprehension, detention and removal of criminal aliens who pose a threat to the public, and ICE Director John Morton outlined the policies in a memorandum in June 2010.
Under the new policies, Martinelly Montano would have been detained had he been turned over to ICE, a Homeland Security report said.
The department deported a record 393,000 illegal immigrants in fiscal 2010, about half of which were "non-criminal" immigrant violators.
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