CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Supreme Court has unanimously overturned the conviction of a Wood County man for allowing minors to drink at his home, contributing the a car crash that claimed two lives.
Jeff Corra was indicted for and later convicted of furnishing "alcoholic liquors" to underage guests of his daughters at a party she held at Corra's home in August 2006. Corra was given 10 days in jail and a $400 fine.
The state said that Corra knew that some of the underage party-goers were raiding his refrigerator for Coors Light he had in there, even though Corra said he was tending to a brushfire for the majority of the evening. Four of the party-goers later left his residence and had a car crash. Two passengers died and a third was seriously injured.
Justices threw out Corra's conviction on Feb. 27 because the state tried him under the wrong law. Corra was indicted under the "alcoholic liquors" law when he should have been indicted under the "non-intoxicating beer" law.
"We begin by noting that, from our review of the record, it is apparent that neither the prosecutor nor defense counsel read the statutes relating to the crime of furnishing 'alcoholic liquors' before the jury reached its verdict," Justice Menis Ketchum wrote for the majority. "The prosecutor mistakenly informed a busy trial judge that beer was the same as alcoholic liquor for the purpose of proving the indictment.
"Likewise, it is not disputed that when the circuit court asked at the charge conference whether he should instruct the jury on the definition of alcoholic liquor, defense counsel stated that an instruction was not necessary because beer was an alcoholic liquor."
Ketchum in the opinion noted that the statutory definitions for non-intoxicating beer – which would describe the Coors Light – and alcoholic liquors were distinct.
The law describes non-intoxicating beer as "any beverage, obtained by the fermentation of barley, malt, hops, or similar products or substitute, and containing not more alcohol than" 6 percent by volume. The law says alcoholic liquors "include alcohol, beer, wine and spirits, and any liquid or solid capable of being used as a beverage, but shall not include non-intoxicating beer."
"Reading these statutory definitions in light of the evidence produced at trial, it is clear that there is no evidence that the defendant made 'alcoholic liquors' available to his daughter's underage guests," Ketchum wrote.
The state admitted during oral arguments before the Supreme Court that it charged Corra under the wrong statute. But prosecutors said the error should be waived because Corra did not bring up the disparity during the trial nor demand that jurors be instructed on the statutory difference between non-intoxicating beer and alcoholic liquor.
The state said the conviction should be upheld because the charges against Corra adequately addressed the essence of the crime, regardless of the specificity in the laws enacted by the Legislature.
"However, this logic does not meet our notion of due process," Ketchum wrote. "Criminal statutes should be narrowly and strictly construed in favor of a defendant in order to conform to constitutional notions of due process."
The court said the errors were such that Corra could not be retried.