They define justice for baby killers

Every Thursday at 3 p.m., the prosecutors file into a second floor conference room and take their seats around a long table for the weekly homicide committee meeting.

They are here to talk about the criminal cases that matter most, one person killing another, life and death, crime and punishment.

Some of the worst things that happen in Hillsborough County pass through this room, the robberies and bar fights and drug deals that ended in bloodshed, the twisted family relationships, the predators and the strangers who never should have met.

The prosecutors — well over a dozen of them, including the state attorney and his most senior lawyers — look over crime scene photos and ask questions. They give opinions, and they talk law. Usually they agree, but not always.

Things can get pretty passionate; they are lawyers, after all, and ones who have seen everything and then some. Is this a first-degree murder? Second? Manslaughter? Can we prove it? Do we consider a plea deal? Does someone deserve to die for this?

And sometimes even: Do we charge anyone at all?

The homicide committee has lasted through the terms of several state attorneys. A few years back came a realization both grim and practical, and also sadly reflective of the world we find ourselves in: They decided to form another homicide committee to hear cases in which the victims are babies.

So many babies. Sometimes they have been hurt by strangers, but most often by the very people who were supposed to care for them and keep them safe.

These meetings are more somber, with a fraction of the lawyers in attendance, most who have done time prosecuting sex offense and child abuse cases. This is their daily fodder and their expertise.

Because usually, you know how a grownup was killed. You have evidence like bullets and wounds that tell the tale.

But babies are different.

The people in that conference room have seen the subtle differences between a tragic accident and a deliberate act, between suffocation and SIDs. They know the signs of a baby who has been shaken.

"It's very emotional for all of us," says Mark Ober, the state attorney. "We don't pound our chests."

Sometimes the questions repeat themselves. Someone did this to this child, but which person in the household was it? What about a parent who didn't commit the act — but didn't stop it, either?

The baby homicide committee meets as needed. Or "too often," says prosecutor Karen Stanley, veteran of two decades of such cases.

Soon, the State Attorney's Office will consider the case of Richard McTear Jr., a man charged with a crime that is hard to comprehend, even when witnessing the worst people can do is a regular part of your work week.

McTear, 21, is accused of attacking his ex-girlfriend, throwing her 3-month-old baby boy to the ground, kidnapping him and throwing him from a car.

The boy's name was Emanuel Wesley Murray.

If you think about it, McTear's case could fit on the agenda of either committee: the one that deals with the smallest and most vulnerable victims, or the one that decides if a man should die for a crime.

One more baby, one more life-and-death decision.

They define justice for baby killers 05/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 12:54am]

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