Impaired driver’s crash killed two Charlotte women. His sentence: less than 3 years.
A Charlotte driver who’d been drinking, speeding and driving recklessly was sentenced to 16 to 29 months in prison Thursday for causing the crash that killed two women walking on an east Charlotte sidewalk last year.
The wreck killed Nabila Rasoul, 23, an Afghan evacuee who had resettled in Charlotte months earlier, and Enedina “Dina” Fernandez, 75, the Catholic Charities volunteer who had been teaching her English.
The two were walking along W.T. Harris Boulevard after an English lesson on the afternoon of Feb. 15, 2022, when they were struck by a pickup truck that had been knocked off the roadway by an impaired driver — 22-year-old James William Payne.
In a deal with prosecutors, Payne pleaded guilty to two counts of involuntary manslaughter. Two counts of felony death by vehicle — a charge that carries more serious prison time — were dismissed.
He was also sentenced to 36 months of probation to be served after he leaves prison.
The husbands of the two victims questioned why a man who ended two lives did not receive a stiffer sentence. The two fought through tears as they read statements to Superior Court Judge Karen Eady-Williams.
“Dina and Nabila’s deaths are more than tragic. They are criminal,” Peter Fernandez, who lost his wife of 54 years, told the judge. “The plea deal offered by the District Attorney should not be accepted by this court. It does not represent the justice that Dina and Nabila deserve. Mr. Payne is responsible for killing two beautiful people. He must be held accountable.”
As Peter Fernandez described the agony of learning that his wife had died, Payne sobbed.
Rasoul’s husband, Ahmad, said that because of Payne’s actions that day, he has been left to raise three small children — ages 1, 4 and 5 — on his own.
He recalled breathing a sigh of relief in August 2021 after fleeing the violence of Afghanistan and immigrating to the U.S.
“Then a disaster called a drunk driver caused me to lose my wife forever,” he said. “... I believe the person who caused this preventable tragedy should have consequences that last his lifetime too.”
Former North Carolina prosecutors have said they had little choice but to plea bargain or dismiss most criminal charges, The Charlotte Observer has reported. That’s because prosecutors shoulder heavy caseloads and operate in a state-funded court system that is so overburdened that fewer than 1 percent of felony cases go to trial.
In Mecklenburg County, about 115 homicide cases are awaiting trial. And it is typically taking about five to six years for those cases to come to trial.
In a statement issued after the hearing, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s office noted that Payne had no prior criminal record and that the plea deal they negotiated ensured he would do time in prison. If he’d gone to trial, it’s possible a judge could have sentenced him to nothing more than probation, the DA’s office said.
At the time of the crash, Payne had an open bottle of whiskey in the car — a bottle that he tried to hide before police arrived, prosecutor Terra Varnes said. Payne’s alcohol level was 0.12, well above the .08 legal limit.
He had been driving about 60 mph on the 45 mph road, Varnes said.
Fernandez’s son, Christopher, asked the judge to require Payne to take part in an alcohol treatment program and to speak to students about the dangers of drinking and driving after he is released from prison.
The judge agreed. She ordered Payne to serve 120 hours of community service per year while he’s on probation, and to focus that work on helping students learn from his mistakes.
“I think that could have a huge and lasting impact on someone like you,” she said.
“I’ve been working as a judge for 15 years, and this is one of the most tragic cases I’ve encountered,” the judge said. “There are no winners in this.”
Payne’s attorney, Chris Fialko, told the judge his client has completed a 30-hour substance abuse treatment class and that he has begun to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Payne told the judge he wanted to apologize to the husbands of the two victims.
“I should never have been behind the wheel that day,” he said. “...I’m working every day to stay sober so nothing like this will ever happen again.”
‘Doing what was right’
Raised in the Bronx, Dina Fernandez made friends easily and loved striking up conversations with strangers on airplanes and in supermarket check-out lines, her family said.
She often volunteered to help those less fortunate. She’d volunteered for years at an HIV clinic, and she served as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients at medical clinics in Charlotte.
“It was hard to dissuade her from doing what was right,” her husband said.
So when St. Peter Catholic Church asked for volunteers to help Afghan evacuees in 2021, Fernandez was quick to raise her hand. She formed a close bond with Rasoul — a young woman with a lively sense of humor who took immediately to her tutoring.
Fernandez had just finished her English lesson with Rasoul at her east Charlotte home on Feb. 15, when the two of them started walking to a nearby church, where Rasoul planned to ask about job opportunities and day care for her children, Ahmad Rasoul said. They were just a block from Rasoul’s home when the truck hit the curb — and then the two of them.
Peter Fernandez said he has never experienced pain more intense than what he suffered that day, after a police officer entered his home to tell him his wife had been killed by a car.
“There are days when I accept it,” he told The Observer. “And there are days when I just scream that God has failed me.”
The saddest thing, Ahmad Rasoul told the judge, is that his children do not yet understand the meaning of death.
“And every day they hope to see their kind mother again,” he said.