On Wednesday, Joseph C. Stemple Jr. was sentenced for the third, and likely final, time for killing an elderly New Castle couple nearly five years ago while driving the wrong way drunk on state Route 60.

Stemple, 44, formerly of Bethlehem, crashed his car head-on into the car of Donald Romanio Sr. and Norma Romanio on Nov. 5 2003 in Shenango Township. His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit at the time.

Stemple had pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle while driving drunk and drunken driving and was sentenced in 2004 by Mercer County Common Pleas President Judge Francis J. Fornelli to 9 to 20 years in prison.

Fornelli sentenced Stemple according to guidelines appropriate for two counts of homicide by vehicle, but Stemple had plea bargained down to one. Fornelli then sentenced him a second time to 5 to 10 years, plus 3 for the second death.

But Stemple’s attorney – and former Pennsylvania Attorney General – Ernie D. Preate Jr. argued Fornelli misinterpreted the law, which Preate and prosecutors agreed was a poorly written statute.

The state’s Superior Court agreed with Preate and overturned Fornelli’s sentence. The prosecution was back to square one.

Stemple pleaded guilty again in April, but this time to two separate counts of homicide by vehicle while driving drunk, one for each victim. Fornelli on Wednesday gave him 8 to 20 years.

It didn’t come soon enough for Donald R. Romanio Jr., the Romanios’ only child, who told Fornelli that even when Stemple is free his parents will still be in their graves.

“After today I never want to know he exists,” Romanio said of Stemple.

Stemple admitted he started drinking about halfway through a trip from Bethlehem to Cleveland on Nov. 5, 2003. By the time he got to Mercer County he needed to go to the bathroom and got confused, ending up headed the wrong way on Route 60 where he crashed into the Romanios’ car.

His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit in 2003, and bordering on the point of “alcohol toxicity,” defense expert Dr. Mark Goral said on Wednesday.

At the time, Stemple had already been arrested for drunken driving four times, said Assistant District Attorney Samuel Zuck. He was on probation for one of those cases and released on his own recognizance for the other three. He was eventually convicted in all the cases.

Depending on how one counts, he had failed five to seven rehab programs, Fornelli said.

Fornelli added that Stemple was belligerent and violent at the scene of the accident, going as far as to hit one of the paramedics twice and asking them to call his father, a Montgomery County police chief.

Preate said Stemple isn’t trying to get off the hook for his crimes through the appeals. “This is an attempt to make a fair sentence, a legal sentence.”

Stemple told Fornelli Wednesday he doesn’t deserve leniency, and that he was the one who should have died in the wreck. He broke down into tears while speaking.

“I’ve hurt so many people, especially the Romanio family, and it’s so unfair,” Stemple said. He said he hoped they could forgive him as a person even if his actions were unforgivable.

Preate said Stemple took to heart a challenge Fornelli – who often lectures defendants – gave him at his last sentencing to try to be a better man.

“Three-plus years ago you did challenge me,” Stemple said. “I took that personally and it scared me, because I did not want to be that person.”

He has taken every program for his problems that is offered by the prison, Preate said.

Stemple has had no misconduct during his four years and five months in prison, Goral said. He added that Stemple has a severe alcohol problem and “needs to be in (Alcoholics Anonymous) until he’s dead.”

Fornelli pointed out Stemple was in AA at the time of the crash.

He said Stemple may have shaped up, but there’s also a chance Stemple is just trying to get out of prison faster or that his problems will just resurface when he’s free. Fornelli said he’s met many people who are model citizens, but only while inside prison.

“I’m going to give you some credit for what you’ve done the last three years, though it is ambiguous,” Fornelli said.

Fornelli also gave Stemple a little over three years’ credit for his time served so far.

Stemple’s father, former Whitpain Township police chief Joseph Stemple Sr., said his son was a good kid who started to go wrong. “I still believe in Joe Jr.”