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Jennifer Porter and Race: Can Media Make a Difference Now?



It was a scene that seemed depressingly familiar.

Packed into the Hillsborough NAACP's small headquarters in Tampa Monday night, a crowd of 50 or so people watched officials from local and regional arms of the civil rights group denounce seeming disparities in justice meted out to black and non-black people who have committed the same crime.

Seven cameras from an array of local TV news outlets watched as NAACP officials ticked off the crimes and punishments:

William Thornton IV, a first-time offender, was told by a public defender to plead no contest to vehicular homicide charges in a crash that killed two people. In September, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

(Meus in report on WTVT-Ch. 13)

Jean Claude Meus, an immigrant from Haiti, was driving a truck which crashed near Wauchula, killing a mother and her 8-year-old child. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, despite the fact that he didn't leave the scene, called police and two sisters of the woman killed believe Meus' claim that he was not impaired or asleep during the accident.

And, of course, Tampa dance teacher Jennifer Porter was recently sentenced to house arrest and probation after fleeing the scene of an accident in which she killed two children. Despite the fact that her car was cleaned of evidence and she waited days to come forward, she received less than the three years maximum prison sentence made possible by a plea deal drafted by her attorney -- one of Tampa's best criminal attorneys, Barry Cohen.

Meus and Thorton are black. Porter, who is part Cuban, is widely perceived to be white.

"The initial response is outrage, naturally," said NAACP vice president Curtis Stokes, a fomer probation officer who now works as a bank executive. "Race does matter - I think."

But while local media reports emphasized their complaints about the Porter case, several local NAACP officials expressed resignation about her sentence, given that the killed children's mother signed off on Porter's plea deal and did not respond to their early efforts to contact her.

Instead, the group hopes to enlist the national NAACP to help Thornton and Meus -- publicity savvy attorney John Trevena, now handling Meus' case, was front and center with the trucker's fiancee and the victim's sister Monday. They've also scheduled a town hall meeting for Dec. 1 at Beulah Baptist Church, 1006 W Cypress St., Tampa, FL .

Sensitive to the anguish on all sides and wary of sparking a seismic wave of comunity outrage, I think local outlets have held back a bit in commenting on the Porter case' implications (indeed, it took us a week to write an editorial condemning the light sentence, and North Suncoast columnist Andrew Skerritt has offered our most pointed commentary so far).

Contrast this to the furor that erupted following the handcuffing of a black elementary school student in St. Petersburg, and the ironies of media coverage emerge once again. While that media madness sparked worldwide headlines which obscured and obliterated the real issues, these cases -- which could have benefitted from a little national attention -- have received little notice outside the Tampa Bay area.

As rumors swirl that Geraldo Rivera and Al Sharpton may get more involved, I couldn't help wondering whether much of this was too little, too late. Meus has already lost an appeal -- a petiton to the governor seems his last resort -- and Porter's slap on the wrist was written when her plea deal was approved.

Unfortunately, without the kind of galvanizing footage which placed a 5-year-old on TV screens across the country, these issues probably won't get the kind of widespread examination they deserve.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:34pm]


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