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Sue Carlton: Heartening news — Judge says facts must be facts

The case currently playing out in Tampa's federal court looked like a done deal, like a thousand done deals before and a thousand more to come.

Not that the allegations aren't incendiary.

A 28-year-old son of a gynecologist is accused of tricking his pregnant ex into taking an abortion pill disguised as a common antibiotic. She miscarried.

So yes, there are plenty of life-versus-choice implications in this one.

But a proposed plea deal hashed out between the lawyers to end this prior to trial was pretty much dime a dozen. As is the nature of such deals, neither side would get everything, and everyone gets something.

John Andrew Welden would no longer face the prospect of life in prison with the charge of murder under the 2004 Unborn Victims of Violence Act dropped.

And prosecutors would get to put him away for a not-insignificant 13 years and 8 months for product tampering causing serious bodily injury plus mail fraud.

And everyone could avoid the big gamble of what a jury of regular folk might make of this ugly tale.

Done deal, right? Except for a judge who was paying attention.

In an unusual move days before sentencing, U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara officially noted what he saw as a serious problem. The judge pointed to a lack of evidence as to whether the single Cytotec pill Remee Jo Lee took indeed "caused her to suffer serious bodily injury and caused the death of her unborn embryo."

All of which could seriously affect how much time Welden faces under sentencing guidelines — and could even knock that range down as low as 3 years and three months to 5 years and three months.

Defense experts — whose resumes the judge describes as "impressive" — have already opined there is no way to say for sure that one pill did this.

But prosecutors did not trot out counter-experts prior to the plea deal. And so the judge has "grave concerns" about "whether there exists a true factual basis" for the plea agreement.

Now: Wouldn't it be easier for him to rubber stamp this and move on to the next case, since both sides already agreed?

Except for that part about the justice system being only as strong as the rules that form it.

It's no secret that appointed federal judges seem at times able to act outside the influence of public outrage. U.S. District Judge James Moody initially threw out a case against the girlfriend of the killer of two Tampa police officers, charges that seemed a tad contrived no matter how much you disliked her actions that night. How much more difficult would it have been for an elected state judge to do the same in a case so emotional?

Speaking of state court, this week a Hillsborough teacher was sentenced to 38 years in prison for lewd acts on a 12-year-old boy. What she did was reprehensible and deserving of punishment. But, and I will be stoned in the public square for this one, is she a criminal who needs to be imprisoned for nearly four decades? When, for perspective, a drunken driver who killed two pedestrians — killed them — recently got a plea deal for less than a third of that?

Prosecutors now must prove their case against Welden "by a preponderance of the evidence." (Program note: One of their experts is Dr. Cathy Lynch of USF's Morsani College of Medicine, and also wife of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.)

Prosecutors may well accomplish that and the deal can go down, or this ending could change. Either way, it's heartening to hear a judge say facts have to be actual facts, and getting it right for the record matters.

Sue Carlton: Heartening news — Judge says facts must be facts 12/10/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 7:22pm]
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