In letter, parents of teenager Jordan Valdez argue against adult punishment in fatal hit-run

TAMPA — The parents of Davis Islands teenager Jordan Valdez say their daughter deserves to lose her driver's license and perform community service for leaving the scene of a fatal crash, but argue that adult sanctions would threaten her academic future.

A letter written by Robert and Kimberly Valdez is being circulated among their family and friends in anticipation of Jordan's Nov. 24 sentencing date. The parents ask supporters to write letters to court officials about their daughter's character and why she should be punished as a juvenile.

"The truth is, Jordan needs your help now," wrote the Valdezes, who have not spoken publicly about their daughter's predicament.

Jordan is expected to plead guilty next month to an adult charge of leaving the scene of an accident with death. Her attorney has said she panicked the night of Feb. 8 after she hit and killed a homeless woman who was crossing Hyde Park Avenue near the Davis Islands bridge.

Jordan was a 16-year-old junior at Academy of Holy Names at the time of the crash. The victim was Melissa Sjostrom, 33.

Though prosecutors are not seeking prison time or a conviction, they have been unable to reach a plea agreement with the defense. The sticking point: The defense wants Jordan sentenced as a juvenile, and the state wants her punished as an adult.

In their letter, the Valdezes say efforts to convince the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office otherwise "fell on deaf ears."

The sentencing decision will be left up to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe.

Assistant State Attorney Michael Sinacore would not comment Tuesday. The Valdezes did not return calls to their home, and their attorneys declined to discuss the letter.

It is not uncommon for defendants to solicit support before sentencing, though attorneys usually prefer that clients not put their thoughts about a case in writing.

"We, as her parents, understand the need for her to grow as a human being, learn from this experience and be punished for her actions," Robert and Kimberly Valdez wrote. "However, we do not agree that adult sanctions (are) appropriate for several reasons."

The parents are particularly concerned about how the outcome of the case might affect their daughter's Florida Bright Futures scholarship and college admission. A guilty or no contest plea to the felony charge would make Jordan ineligible for Bright Futures, which can be worth up to several thousand dollars a year. But it is unclear how juvenile sanctions would affect her eligibility.

"She earned it and deserves it," the parents wrote. "Taking it away from her will only serve to diminish a child's sense of purpose and accomplishment."

Now a 17-year-old high school senior, Jordan plans to apply to the University of South Florida, University of Florida and University of Central Florida, her parents wrote. They worry about whether she will get accepted into any of those schools if she is sentenced as an adult.

"We see no good and no lesson learned by taking this away," they wrote.

They suggest that an appropriate punishment would include probation with "heavy community service hours" and a requirement that Jordan give speeches about "safe driving and consequences."

The parents thank supporters for their encouragement. They say the situation has not been easy, and they could not have gotten through it alone.

"It is unfortunate that the media spun this into a class issue, but the truth now is that Jordan is absolutely not being treated fairly because the media (have) made it so," the letter states.

That statement drew a sharp response from Lisa Mott, Sjostrom's aunt in Kentucky.

"How is she not being treated fairly?" Mott asked. "She killed somebody."

Mott said Sjostrom's family is trying to get the hearing date changed. It is set to take place two days before Thanksgiving, which would require the family to travel to Florida from several states during the busy holiday.

The aunt is pushing for adult sanctions.

"I find it ironic that she earned the scholarship," Mott said. "She also earned a 30-year prison sentence. As much as Jordan deserves a scholarship, Melissa didn't deserve to die."

Toward the end of their letter, the Valdezes note both families' suffering.

"We sincerely and with all our hearts, thoughts and prayers, think about the victim's family everyday and what they must be going (through) as well," they wrote. "It is regrettable that both families have to endure this tragedy."

Times staff writer Elisabeth Parker contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Excerpts

Excerpts from the letter written by Robert and Kimberly Valdez:

"We, as her parents, understand the need for her to grow as a human being, learn from this experience, and be punished for her actions.

"If charged as an adult she WILL without a doubt, lose her Florida Bright Futures Scholarship. As many of you know, this is not a free ride. This is something earned by a student for their 4 years of studying, dedication, hard work, and persistence. Why should a child that has earned something, of her own accord, (the right to further her education) lose that. The fact is, no one gave it to her, she earned it and deserves it. Taking it away from her will only serve to diminish a child's sense of purpose and accomplishment. We see no good and no lesson learned by taking this away.

"It is unfortunate that the media spun this into a class issue, but the truth now is that Jordan is absolutely not being treated fairly, because the media has made it so."

Full text is at links.tampabay.com.

In letter, parents of teenager Jordan Valdez argue against adult punishment in fatal hit-run 10/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 9:18am]

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