BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — SALEM — For more than a year, Charles E. Snow III, a man with a record of seven prior drunken-driving convictions, has denied responsibility for driving drunk and crashing into another vehicle on Route 128, pushing a mother and daughter 150 yards, sideways, down the highway.
He took the stand during his trial in August and claimed that the other driver had cut him off. He denied being so drunk he passed out in the back seat of a state police cruiser, or singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” loudly in his holding cell.
A jury convicted him of drunken driving.
Yesterday, he forced the court to hold a second full jury trial on the issue of how many of those prior drunken-driving convictions could be held against him.
It took a Salem Superior Court jury less than 20 minutes to decide his Memorial Day weekend, 2012, arrest in Lynnfield was at least his fifth.
Then Snow, 54, of Salem, became remorseful.
“I’d like to apologize to the people that was in the accident,” Snow told Judge Timothy Feeley yesterday afternoon. “I was really scared at the time. I was quite shook up. My heart goes out to those people. It must have scared the crap out of them.”
He acknowledged that “alcohol has been a problem for me for many years. I thought I had it more or less beat.”
Despite Snow’s promises never to drink again, Feeley sentenced him to four to five years in state prison and fined him $2,000.
Feeley said it’s hard to imagine that the two women in the Volkswagen Beetle weren’t more seriously hurt after being pushed down the highway by Snow’s Ford F-350 truck and then into the shoulder of the road.
A Lynn schoolteacher testified during the trial that the plow mount hook from Snow’s truck was just inches from her head, and though she was covered in shattered glass, she received only cuts.
“Fortunately, and I think Mr. Snow agrees, the injuries to the occupants of the VW were very minor,” said the judge. “I was frankly startled that the injuries were as minor as they were.”
But for that, said Feeley, he would have gone along with prosecutor Kelleen Forlizzi’s request for a 41/2- to five-year term.
Five years is the maximum penalty any repeat drunken driver can face, whether it’s a fifth offense or a 15th, under Massachusetts law.
Forlizzi showed jurors court documents from Massachusetts and New Hampshire detailing six of Snow’s prior convictions, starting in 1983 with typewritten docket pages from an old court record book and continuing through 1998 with a conviction in Dover, N.H.
She then pointed to other records, including Snow’s criminal history, driving history and his own applications for reinstatement of his license (which was, despite his record, valid on the day of the crash), to show that the convictions all belonged to the same person, Snow.
She told the judge after the trial that records from a 1980 conviction that appears on his record were no longer available.
Defense lawyer William Martin, who pointed to a long gap between Snow’s last drunken-driving arrest, in 2005 (a charge he beat later in court), asked for a shorter, 21/2 to four-year term.
Martin had urged jurors to look skeptically at the records for details that aren’t consistent, such as Snow’s various addresses around the North Shore through the years, telling them, “You are the gatekeepers.”
Before jury selection yesterday, Snow asked the judge to postpone the proceeding, which had already been delayed from a September date, so that he could challenge the validity of his 1998 guilty plea in the New Hampshire case, on the grounds that he didn’t have a lawyer.
The judge denied the request, pointing out that because the New Hampshire case was treated as a misdemeanor, he wasn’t entitled to an attorney. Besides, the judge said, even if that case were not part of the record, there were still at least four priors, enough to support the charge of a fifth or subsequent offense.
Snow has been in custody since the accident and received credit for more than 520 days he’s been awaiting trial. He will have to serve about three more years before he can seek parole.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.