Karl Nelson received 40 years in prison when he was convicted in December 1996 of driving under the influence with manslaughter for the deaths of Mark Fuqua and Stephanie Nicola.
The sentencing guidelines Circuit Judge William Sestak used were later found to be unconstitutional.
Nelson, of Spring Hill, was resentenced in July 2001, and he again received 40 years in prison _ 10 years more than the maximum.
In justifying the departure from the sentencing guidelines, Circuit Judge Craig Villanti said Nelson "is not amenable to rehabilitation or supervision, as evidenced by an escalating pattern of criminal conduct."
On Friday, Villanti's colleagues on the Second District Court of Appeals overturned the sentence, saying Nelson deserves a new sentencing hearing. The record does not support giving Nelson more than the 29-year maximum, the appeals court said. "The trial court abused its discretion and Nelson's sentences must be reversed," wrote Appeals Court Judge E.J. Salcines in the decision.
On the evening of Dec. 22, 1995, Nelson raced south down U.S. 19, pushing the speedometer in his Chrysler LeBaron past 70 mph. There was a bottle of Icehouse beer between his legs and a bunch of empties in the back. For nearly a mile, he swerved the wrong way through the northbound lane, according to witnesses.
Just south of the Hernando County line, his car slammed into a Ford Taurus driven by Monica Nicola, also of Spring Hill. She was returning home after taking her two daughters, Danielle and Stephanie, Christmas shopping at the Gulf View Square mall. Stephanie, 8, was killed. Monica Nicola needed a steel rod to repair her leg. Danielle suffered a broken arm and a severe gash across her forehead.
Nelson's passenger, Mark Fuqua, 40, also died instantly, slumping against him in the car.
"Get this (expletive) guy off me," Nelson was quoted as telling the first deputy at the scene.
A helicopter carried Nelson and the Nicolas to the hospital. Monica Nicola said she could smell the alcohol during the flight.
During his 1996 trial, Nelson testified that Fuqua was depressed. As a concerned friend, Nelson figured a trip to a topless bar would cheer up Fuqua. But once in the car, Fuqua went into a suicidal rage, punched him out and took control of the wheel, steering them into oncoming traffic.
Nelson, who is now 42, hadn't legally driven a car since 1982. He had previous convictions for two DUIs, twice driving with a suspended license, possession of cocaine, stalking and battery.
That record convinced Villanti to depart from the sentencing guidelines. He addressed the victims' families during the hearing, saying an appeal was likely.
"It's difficult to be stoical so that you can go out of here and put some closure on this case and pray that you never have to come back again," Villanti said.
"And if you do, I hope you understand this, because I am doing the best I can to give a sentence that I think is appropriate, and I am making some rulings on some legal arguments in favor of a sentencing that I believe is appropriate, which unfortunately is going to put you through an appeal, because it is not 100 percent open and shut. I think it is hopefully 99 percent open and shut . . .
"I think the law is in your favor, or I wouldn't be doing what I am doing. If it was against you, I would tell you to your face. I don't want to put you through this again. I think there is a good chance it will be upheld on appeal."
The Nicolas did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe and chief prosecutor Michael Halkitis were unavailable for comment as well.
_ Richard Raeke 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 rraekesptimes.com.