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The Hyde Park hit-and-run case poses a moral conundrum for parents

TAMPA — Your child tells you she was in an accident. Police link her vehicle to a fatal hit-and-run crash.

What do you do?

The parents of 17-year-old Jordan Valdez hired a lawyer and avoided the questions of detectives after police impounded her Nissan Murano as evidence in a Feb. 8 crash.

This week, as the incident became public, strangers called the family's morals into question. The merciless Internet threatened the Valdezes with karma and hell. "Dad and Mom, what a miserable example you are," a comment seethed on the St. Petersburg Times' Web site, tampabay.com.

The Valdez family isn't the first caught in a tug-of-war between the protection of a child and civic responsibility.

Hank and Margaret Arrington faced similar anguish in 2001. The stakes were higher, then. Their sons admitted roles in the carjacking, kidnapping and shooting of a 20-year-old University of South Florida student.

The parents drove 17-year-old Tobaris Arrington and his 22-year-old stepbrother Jabari Armstrong to the police station to confess.

"I do not regret turning in my boys," mother Margaret Arrington said Thursday. "But it's real, real hard."

The older son went to prison for life, and the younger one for 17 years. Friends and family didn't understand. The sons resented her. "Moms are supposed to protect their kids," one told her.

"I protected him," she said. "I protected him from himself."

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder has seen parents handle the situation differently in his 15 years on the bench. Some parents go to police, but others take a "let's see what we can get away with" attitude.

"When parents have held their children accountable, what I've seen is a decreased recidivism," Holder said.

Arrington says she is confident that her youngest son, who may be released by his late 20s, will live a more productive life for having learned an important lesson.

"The day that they grant him his walking papers," she said, "no judge will see that young man again."

Jordan Valdez has not been charged with a crime.

Tampa police say she told her mother she was in a crash and later made a constitutionally protected admission that she was behind the wheel.

Leaving the scene of a fatal crash is a first-degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. But police have no independent evidence or eyewitness statements that confirm Valdez was driving that night. And her attorney maintains she has admitted nothing.

Even Judge Holder sees shades of gray here.

He imagines a parent thinking, "No matter what I do, I can't make this right. So what good will it do for my daughter to be punished?"

That's what makes hard ethical decisions hard, said Edward Queen, director of ethics and leadership programs at Emory University.

"We struggle against competing values," he said.

It may be easier for a parent to go to authorities if presented with knowledge of a violent crime, he said.

In the case of Jordan Valdez, the choice could be tougher, he said. Parents may lean more heavily toward trying to protect a child when there's no obvious sign of intent to do wrong.

And yet, if her parents were trying to shield her, they may instead have caused her harm, said William French, director of the center for ethics at Loyola University.

The girl could have had the mercy of the community on her side, not its wrath.

“The parents, by stonewalling the procedures and the legal investigation, are exploding what would be a tragic, smaller case," he said.

Some have made note that Valdez attends the Academy of Holy Names, a Catholic school.

French, a theology professor, says Catholic morality points to civic responsibility.

"The Catholic Church has long criticized a rugged individual understanding of the self and of the family," he said. The common good of the community takes priority over the individual.

That's a value sometimes at odds with the American legal system.

"If that first call had gone to a nonlawyer," French said, "the advice they would have gotten might not immediately have brought in the apparatus of the legal system and legal calculations."

Stephen Romine, a defense lawyer not connected to the Valdez case, says lawyers, quite simply, owe their clients legal protection. In some cases, it's best not to talk to police.

"They can talk to their pastor about moral advice," he said.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Elisabeth Parker and Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com.

The Hyde Park hit-and-run case poses a moral conundrum for parents 05/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 5:27pm]
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