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Privilege shouldn't be a factor in arriving at justice

Imagine the story in reverse.

Imagine the suspect is someone from the streets with a couple of arrests for cocaine and petty theft.

Imagine the victim is heartbreakingly young, only 16, a fresh-faced and pretty cheerleader from a nice private school, a beloved daughter with a lifetime to live — all of it wiped out in a hit-and-run on a South Tampa street.

Someone is dead. Someone left the scene, a felony in Florida. Given that victim and that suspect, how do you suppose this might play out?

Anger? Outrage? Handcuffs?

But that's not our story, is it?

The dead person is a homeless woman named Melissa Sjostrom, who was making her way across Hyde Park Avenue on a February night when she was hit hard enough to knock her out of her shoes.

The person police focused on is a girl named Jordan Valdez, now 17.

Police say a Nissan Murano with front-end damage parked outside her Davis Islands home matched a paint chip from the horrible scene left behind.

Police also said that although the girl told her mother she had been in an accident, they didn't have enough to put her in the driver's seat. The family's not talking. Even a ticket for careless driving issued to the teenager was thrown out for lack of evidence.

Any of this sounding familiar?

When a young teacher named Jennifer Porter hit a group of kids crossing a dark street and fled, a story unfolded about haves and have-nots, about nuances in the law and about how some parents will protect their children.

Here's an irony: In both cases, had the driver not left, there would likely have been no charges. Sometimes an accident is an accident — horrible, tragic, unavoidable, and an accident.

Both times, we found ourselves looking at the parents, and maybe at ourselves.

Porter's father cleaned the blood from his daughter's car afterward. Valdez's father contacted police the next day, but later said his lawyer advised him not to say anything.

And some of us were quietly thinking: What if this were my child? Would I risk her future, even if I knew it was the only right thing to do?

Back then, an outraged public called for Porter's parents to be prosecuted, and we learned that the law can take into account blood ties, that parents can't be charged with being an accessory after the fact to a crime their child committed.

Now we're finding out about something called accident report privilege: You have a duty to give information to police after you've been in a crash with damage, injury or death, but what you say can't be held against you, in part so officers can get quick and critical information.

What happened on that street that night made big headlines this week. Tampa police are now reviewing the case and say they have more leads to follow.

Homeless. Privileged. It shouldn't matter, even if it does.

Blind justice has to be more than a vague legal concept here. Neither the victim nor the suspect should be vilified for what they are, and they shouldn't be shielded because of it. All that matters is who did what on that street that night, and after.

Each of them deserves no more and no less.

Privilege shouldn't be a factor in arriving at justice 05/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 10:17pm]

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