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Sue Carlton: Ugly justice in a judge's hands

Hear enough real-life courts-and-crime stories and you know the concept of justice can be hard to pin down.

At its cleanest, justice is this sense of order when someone who has done a terrible wrong is convicted for it, in knowing there are consequences even when it can't change what happened.

But sometimes, justice is uglier, like when the law doesn't fit what happened even when you believe what happened was wrong.

That kind of justice would be Cortnee Brantley going free.

The fate of Brantley — girlfriend of a man accused of murdering two Tampa police officers — now rests in the hands of a federal judge. A jury said guilty, but in a most unusual twist, U.S. District Judge James Moody hit pause to figure out what justice would be here.

On a summer night in 2010, Brantley was pulled over for not having a tag on her car. Police found a bad-check warrant for her passenger, Dontae Morris. But when they tried to make an arrest, authorities say, Morris shot officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis and ran away. The horrifying scene, caught on police dashboard video, would be watched by one federal jury and then another, trying to decide what justice would be.

Not justice for Morris, who awaits trial and faces the death penalty over in state court. For Brantley.

After the shots, she took off in her car. Later, she did not fully cooperate in an interview with police. Hard as it is to imagine Brantley not telling everything she knew given the deaths of two men that night, there is no law requiring anyone to be a decent, responsible person. State prosecutors found no crime.

But the feds did, dusting off the little-known "misprision of a felony." The charge says that Brantley knew Morris was a felon who illegally had a gun and ammunition, that she had a duty to tell authorities and — big one here — that she intentionally did something to conceal it.

An elected state judge might have been more wary of the fierce sea of police blue that tends to fill a courtroom when they have lost one of their own. Judge Moody, who doesn't face voters, could not find evidence Brantley concealed anything and dismissed the charge. An appeals court sent it back, saying he should have heard the evidence beforehand.

The first jury couldn't agree on a verdict. The second said guilty this week.

So about whether Brantley "concealed."

Asked on the verdict form to describe what acts she committed to conceal Morris' crime of being a felon in possession, the jury pointed to texts and phone calls between Brantley and Morris after the shooting — some about her moving her car from where it was parked.

Talk of her hiding her car? Okay. But her concealing that he was a felon with a gun and ammunition?

I'm no lawyer, but see any lapse in logic there?

There will always be people who believe that the end justifies the means — that Brantley was wrong not to cooperate with two officers dead, that she should be punished even if no one can find a crime to fit what she did and didn't do.

That's not justice.

Imperfect, unsatisfying, never enough to change what happened, it's only justice when it's the same for everyone — the innocent, the guilty, and the even ones we want to be guilty.

Sue Carlton: Ugly justice in a judge's hands 01/17/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 8:28pm]
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