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Man gets 10 years in fatal DUI case

Benjamin Lloyd Mercer pleaded no contest to driving under the influence manslaughter and then put his fate in the hands of a judge.

He did all the predictable things at the Tuesday afternoon hearing. He apologized. He cried. He said he wished he could turn back time.

His plea for mercy, however, suffered a major blow when prosecutor Scott Andringa stood up and said that on Monday, Mercer had appeared for a deposition "with a strong odor of alcohol on his breath."

Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray showed little sympathy for the 20-year-old Mercer. The judge sentenced him to 10{ years in prison. Mercer also must serve 4{ years' probation, and his driving privileges were revoked for life.

Prosecutors say Mercer, of New Port Richey, had a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit shortly after the crash last fall. Mercer has admitted drinking nine beers in the hours before the crash. Prosecutors say he also was using marijuana.

Witnesses reported that Mercer was speeding and swerving across the southbound lanes of U.S. 19 on the night of Oct. 5, 2001. Judith Carlson was headed south at the same time, on her way to her job as a nurse at an assisted living facility in Tarpon Springs.

At the intersection of Bonita Road in Holiday, Mercer's 1987 Cadillac slammed into the back of Carlson's Kia Sportage. The collision "launched" the Kia into a series of rolls, Andringa said. Carlson was dead at the scene. She was 59.

Mercer, who was 19 at the time, refused medical treatment. Tests showed he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.265 percent. Florida law presumes impairment at 0.08 percent.

Defense attorney Keith Hammond said Mercer deserved a break for cooperating with authorities. In a deposition on Monday, Mercer gave authorities the name of the man who bought him beer and liquor on the day of the crash, Hammond said. Attorneys would not release the man's name on Tuesday.

Hammond asked the judge to sentence Mercer as a youthful offender, which would have capped his prison time at six years. Adult sentencing guidelines called for 10 to 15 years.

Prosecutors asked for an adult sentence.

"Wherever he got this alcohol, nobody poured it down his throat," Andringa said. "He's an adult. He knew better."

Mercer, his baggy khakis hanging loosely from his slight frame, bowed his head throughout the hearing. Given a chance to speak, he turned and addressed Judith Carlson's husband.

"I'm terribly sorry," Mercer said to Lee Carlson. "That night I was irresponsible and selfish."

Carlson was too upset to make a statement. His lawyer, Tom Michaels, said Carlson considered Mercer "a murderer."

Carlson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Mercer. On Tuesday, Michaels said he was considering adding another defendant to the lawsuit: the man who bought alcohol for Mercer.

_ Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavissptimes.com.

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