By PEGGY O'HARE
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
A judge's daughter convicted of intoxication manslaughter for a drunken driving crash that killed her boyfriend will serve four months in the county jail as a condition of her probation.
But Elizabeth Shelton, a 20-year-old University of St. Thomas student, avoided a trip to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice largely because the victim's family pleaded for leniency, one juror said Tuesday.
The daughter of state District Judge Pat Shelton was allowed to go home with her mother after the jury's verdict was announced, marking an end to her seven-day trial. She will be on probation for the next eight years. The family declined to comment.
She will remain free until she completes her classes in December. Then she will begin to serve her jail term, the minimum required for probationers convicted of intoxication manslaughter.
She also must pay a $10,000 fine and will face a five-year prison sentence if her probation is revoked.
The jury found the young woman responsible for the death of Matthew McNiece, 19, of Bellaire, rejecting her defense's claims that a large truck veered several feet into her lane just before the crash on the Southwest Freeway last year.
Two blood tests showed Elizabeth Shelton's blood alcohol concentration to be more than three times the legal limit — at 0.26 and 0.28 percent — after the fatal wreck.
The trial was a story of a high-school romance ending in tragedy after a night of drinking. Shelton and McNiece, who met as students at Bellaire High School, had been drinking at a condominium near University of St. Thomas before the crash on Oct. 23.
Around 2 a.m. that morning, with McNiece in the front passenger seat, Shelton crashed her Lexus sport utility vehicle into the rear corner of a large box truck.
McNiece, who had been hanging out the window waving his hands before the impact, based on one witness' testimony, was almost beheaded. Tests found he also was intoxicated.
The trial drew attention largely because of Shelton's father's position. Testimony revealed the young woman protested, "My daddy is a (expletive) judge," and made an obscene gesture at a police officer when a nurse tried to take a blood sample to assess her level of alcohol.
And Shelton's father drew outrage when he suggested from the witness stand that authorities should have prosecuted a witness for being an illegal immigrant and the truck driver for not stopping after the wreck — even though the truck driver returned to the crash site minutes later.
In the end, however, the McNiece family's support for Shelton and the fact that she had never before been in trouble were big factors in the jury's decision to recommend probation, said juror Russell Novak.
"Everything that was presented to us in the sentencing phase of the testimony was positive," said Novak, 39, of Spring.
Shelton's sentence is not unusual for a first-time offender convicted of such an offense, one prosecutor said.
"For a first offender with no prior criminal history and one person killed, juries typically give 10 years probation," said Warren Diepraam, chief prosecutor for the Vehicular Homicide Team at the Harris County District Attorney's Office.
The law requires a judge to grant probation when the jury recommends it. She could have faced up to 20 years in prison.
Family members of the young man who died in the wreck said he would not have wanted Shelton to go to prison.
"I honestly think he would have thought most of this (trial) was a circus," said the victim's brother, Sean McNiece.
Prosecutor Paul Doyle argued Shelton's family and her defense went to great lengths to keep her from taking responsibility for the accident. He also reminded jurors of the mudslinging at the truck driver, Lance Bennett.
Shelton's father also had publicly accused Bennett during the trial of causing the accident.
"The public attack on Lance Bennett, in order to avoid her taking responsibility, is absolutely despicable," Doyle said.
Defense attorney George "Mac" Secrest and Shelton's family described her as remorseful and depressed over her boyfriend's death.
Shelton's attorney requested she be allowed to serve jail time on weekends, but it's unclear if visiting state District Judge Richard Mays, who presided over her case, will allow that.