Melandus Penson pleaded guilty on May 2, 2016, to five charges including two DUI death charges, two DUI negligent injury charges, and one aggravated assault charge in the Sunday, May 31, 2015, crash involving 4 Briarcrest Christian School students. The students, Kara Holden, Caroline Kam, Maddie Kruse, and Rachel Lynch, were on their way to a beach vacation driven by Kam’s grandmother, Roxanne Anderson, when Penson rear-ended them on a Mississippi highway at approximately 6:30am. Kruse, age 16, and Lynch, age 17, were killed in the crash and the other three passengers were injured.
Penson, who showed little to no remorse during the court proceedings, had a BAC that was reported at .14, almost twice the legal limit. At the time of the crash, he had been convicted of five previous DUI’s in 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2014, and was out on bond with a suspended license for a sixth DUI arrest on March 22, 2015. The conviction from the fatal May 31, 2015, crash is his 7th DUI.
Victims and their families testified before a Mississippi court on Monday of how their lives have been dramatically impacted by the crash and implored Judge J. Kelly Luther to hand Penson the maximum sentence allowed by law. They spoke of the lives lost, of moments they will never share, and of the difficulties of coping. Many of them expressed fear for the safety of other family and friends on the roads with drivers like Penson.
Penson’s family also attended the proceedings. When Penson, himself, was given a chance to address his victims, he told them, “I just want to let y’all know, I was not under the influence of alcohol. I had mercy. I stayed on the scene for more than an hour…I’d like to say that I’m sorry. I have a family too. Just as well as God forgives, I ask that y’all forgive me.”
Judge Luther offered empathy to the victims. He somberly told the court that in his 25 years of service, this was the “worst case I’ve ever dealt with as far as DUI death.” He referenced Penson’s repeat DUI offenses and sited human nature, saying that he couldn’t help but wonder “for every time he got caught drinking and driving, how many times did he not get caught?” He offered that Penson had spared the victims from having to participate in a trial by pleading guilty to the charges and for that, he deserved some credit. He went on to say that any mercy the court was to extend, was not to Mr. Penson, but to the rows of people sitting behind him. It would be to give his family some hope that he might one day get out because they were losing a son, a brother, an uncle. But he added that it would not be in his (the judge’s) lifetime. He then proceeded to sentence Penson to 25 years, the maximum allowed by law, for each of the two DUI death charges for Kruse and Lynch and to a total of 70 years for Holden, Kam, and Anderson with 60 years suspended. He added that the sentences were to be served consecutively for a total of 120 years with 60 to serve and 60 suspended. In addition, if Penson were to survive long enough to be released, there would be 5 years of post-supervision, he would not ever be allowed to drive a vehicle again, and a judge at that time would have to work out some form of restitution to the families as per state law. Judge Luther concluded by saying that he felt sorry for everyone in the court room – everyone except Penson.
Local News Coverage:
News coverage of the sentencing appeared in media from Georgia to California:
Some of MADD Tennessee’s coverage of this case and surrounding DUI issues:
Repeat Offenders in Tennessee