‘It’s something, but it’s not enough:’ 3-year sentence for OWI death highlights call for 5-year minimum

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RHINELANDER -- He was convicted in a fatal drunk-driving crash, but did the punishment fit the crime? The FOX6 Investigators followed one man's road to justice and found some who said the price for taking a life is too low.

When a drunk driver is sentenced for killing one of his own friends, there are no winners. The parade of family members of both of the drunk driver and the young man he killed was evidence of that at the sentencing for Eric Labahn on Oct. 10.

Eric Labahn

Eric Labahn

The victim's sister, Morgan Lockwood, choked back tears as she described the pain of losing her big brother.

"There are days I still call his phone," she said.

"My brother did not deserve this," said Landon Lockwood, the victim's younger brother.

On the other side of the courtroom, Diane Labahn sobbed.

"We feel horrible," she said, as she turned to address the victim's family.

Then, there was the defendant himself, Eric Labahn, who sniffled through his first apology to the victim's family since the crash 16 months earlier.

"I'll never be able to express how truly sorry I am," Labahn said.

Austin Lockwood

In June of 2018, then 22-year-old Labahn invited Austin Lockwood to his family's Northwoods cabin to prep it for summer.

"He was such a great friend," Labahn said.

Austin LockwoodWhen the work was done, they started drinking. They later drove to a lakeside tavern and closed it down.

"This is the sort of partying where you park the car and stay at the lake," Oneida County Judge Michael Bloom lectured from the bench.

Instead of staying at the lake, Labahn got behind the wheel, sped down a heavily wooded road in the town of Three Lakes, and struck a tree, killing Lockwood. Accident reconstruction experts said the vehicle was going 72 miles-per-hour just five seconds before the crash, on a winding, tree-lined road with a caution sign that recommended drivers slow to 20 mph.

"That was incredibly reckless," Bloom said.

Austin Lockwood

Judge Michael Bloom

Judge Michael Bloom

Austin's mother, Sheila Lockwood, had a stronger word than reckless in mind.

"It is murder," she declared.

Nearly 1.5 years after the crash, Judge Bloom's Branch II courtroom was filled with grief and tension.

"Please know that there's not a day that this tragedy is not in our minds," said Diane Labahn, as she tried to assure the victim's friends and family filling the rows on the right side of the courtroom.

"The defendant and his family have shown zero remorse for his horrific actions," Sheila Lockwood returned, unconvinced that the courtroom remorse was genuine.

Austin Lockwood and family

Austin Lockwood and family

Eric Labahn and family

Eric Labahn and family

"When celebrating every Christmas, birthday, or holiday with your family, Mr. Labahn, remember, Austin doesn't get the chance, because of you," said Morgan Lockwood.

Labahn was charged with a drunk driving homicide, a crime with a maximum sentence of 25 years, but even that was split into 15 years of actual confinement and 10 years of release on extended supervision.

Still, the FOX6 Investigators found drunk drivers who kill in Wisconsin rarely get 15 years. A review of online court records identified 27 drunk driving homicide cases the past three years that went to sentencing, where the defendant -- like Labahn -- had no prior OWI offenses.

Drunk driving homicide sentences in Wisconsin

Eleven of the 27 defendants (44%) received less than five years of confinement in prison. Two got no state prison time at all, instead receiving a sentence of probation with one year of "condition" time in a county jail.

"He's gonna walk, and nothing's gonna happen," Sheila Lockwood recalled thinking just before the hearing.

Her fear was not irrational, considering a pre-sentence investigation of Labahn's crash resulted in a recommended sentence matching the weakest the FOX6 Investigators found -- probation, with a year in county jail.

"The defendant killed my son and is looking at a slap on the wrist," Lockwood told the judge.

While alcohol and speed may have caused the crash, it was gravity that weighed on the judge.

Austin Lockwood

Austin Lockwood

"This is a grave and serious offense," Judge Bloom said.

He sentenced Labahn to three years in prison -- more than either the prosecution or defense was seeking.

"It's not enough, but it's something," Sheila Lockwood said.

The three-year sentence imposed on Eric Labahn was less than the minimum sentence proposed in legislation pending before the Wisconsin Senate.

Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon and Senator Alberta Darling, R-River Hills are the primary forces behind the bill that would set a five-year minimum sentence for a drunk driving homicide.

If the Senate votes to approve, it would only need Governor Tony Evers' signature to become law.

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