Friday, February 20, 2009
Gordon House, Who Galvanized Anti-DWI Forces, Is Getting Out of Prison
By Scott Sandlin And T.J. Wilham
Journal Staff Writer
Gordon House, convicted in a notorious Christmas Eve 1992 DWI traffic crash that claimed the lives of a mother and her three daughters, will leave prison next month under conditions to be decided today by the New Mexico Parole Board.
House became the virtual poster boy for DWI reform after the fatal accident. He was eventually convicted in 1995 of four counts of vehicular homicide and other charges and sentenced to 22 years. With credit for good time under then-existing law, he will be released in March after serving nearly 11 years at Department of Corrections prisons in Santa Rosa and Grants.
At its hearing, closed to the public, the parole board will hear from the lone survivor, Paul Cravens, and other family members who are permitted by statute to attend before deciding appropriate conditions for his release.
"He's served his complete sentence ... with no disciplinary action," said Albuquerque attorney Ray Twohig, who represented House through three state District Court trials and subsequent appeals. House has been a model prisoner, volunteering for drug and alcohol counseling programs work Twohig expects him to continue after he's released.
The crash radically altered the lives of both families, and arguably the justice system itself.
The defense raised fair trial issues during three criminal trials, including pretrial publicity and racial dynamics. House, of Thoreau, was sent to prison in 1999 after a seven-year legal odyssey that included three trials, two hung juries, two pleas to the state Court of Appeals and five decisions by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
He was convicted at a 1995 trial in Las Cruces in which the defense challenged the jury makeup as unrepresentative because of its small number of Native Americans. The victims were white and blonde; House is Navajo. That issue lingers in a federal habeas case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The entire Cravens family has become the state's most influential anti-DWI advocates.
Paul Cravens' brother, Kent, was elected to the state Senate in 2001 on an anti-DWI platform.
As a legislator, Kent Cravens has secured millions of dollars to fight DWI and has sponsored key DWI legislation, including the state's interlock law.
Victim Melanie Cravens' mother, Nadine Milford, became a powerful and outspoken lobbyist for anti-DWI legislation, chairing Mothers Against Drunk Driving in New Mexico.
"They became the symbol for all of the families in New Mexico that lost someone to DWI," said Linda Atkinson, director of the DWI Resource Center. "It galvanized the state."
Together, the family has been instrumental in passing laws, including a lowering of the state's presumed level of intoxication from 0.10 to 0.08; making conviction of four or more DWIs a felony offense; and requiring an interlock device for one year for anyone convicted of a first-time DWI offense.
"It was a very, very bad thing that happened ... unfortunate in so many ways," Kent Cravens said. "As a family, we chose to make a stand and try to make it count, and we did that on that day."
As for House himself, they said if the state has decided he's made his restitution, "We can live with that. We can move on and close that chapter."
Paul Cravens lived quietly, out of the public spotlight, in Tijeras until October, when he moved to Colorado for a job with the Federal Aviation Administration.
He has said he has forgiven House and doesn't plan to object to House's release at today's hearing.
"He made mistakes and poor choices that took my life and my family out of my life," Paul Cravens said. "He has been held accountable for those choices he made, and he needs to go forward and we need to go forward. ... He needs to get out and be reunited with his wife and kids."
House is a onetime high school basketball star who was executive director of a halfway house for troubled adolescents in Gallup at the time of the crash. Twohig was able to secure a brief release when House's mother died while he was in custody, and he has watched his children grow up from behind bars.
His son is to graduate soon from the University of New Mexico, and his daughter is a student at New Mexico State University.
"It's not the average case, but then it wasn't from the beginning," Twohig said.
"I'm glad he's been able to make the best of the situation," Twohig said. "He maintained a positive attitude, provided an excellent example to hundreds of people and maintained the solid relationship of his family support. He can come out with his head held high, and ready to go on with his life."