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Under justice, status neither protects nor condemns

Here's the tricky part in a justice system that's supposed to treat everyone the same, whether you live in a big house or make your nightly bed on the steps of a church:

The rules cut both ways. They have to. The same system that shouldn't protect someone because they live a life of relative privilege can't vilify that person for it either.

Probably you know the story by now. Tampa police and prosecutors are working on the case of the headline-making hit-and-run death of a homeless woman named Missy Sjostrom.

As it unfolds, some are calling for the head of the suspect who nearly walked away with no criminal charges, and calling for justice in a death we almost never heard about.

Understandable outrage boiled over when the news came out about Sjostrom, 33, who was hit crossing a Hyde Park street on a February night by someone who drove away.

The investigation was declared inactive after a detective gave a Davis Islands teenager named Jordan Valdez a lecture and a ticket.

People read about the pretty teenager's life of private school and cheerleading and wondered if anyone else would have gotten the same sort of break it surely looked like she had.

It should be noted, too, that others asked why a teenager's life should be tainted by further investigation, making you wonder what justice would look like to them had the roles been reversed.

So the case is reactivated. Assuming a suspect is charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving a death, what's the right outcome? Is there a deal to satisfy both sides and look something like justice for all?

The law on leaving the scene of a crash involving death was toughened up in recent years, the maximum prison sentence increased from 15 to 30 years. This came after the infamous case of Jennifer Porter, who hit a group of kids and killed two of them, then drove away.

In both cases, the toughest thing to remember is we aren't talking about a sentence for those terrible deaths.

The children in the Porter case were crossing a street at dusk. Sjostrom was in the road at night and had cocaine in her system. (In fact, half of the people killed in this city's eight pedestrian fatalities this year have been homeless.) Most important of all: No charges would have been filed had either driver stayed.

The cases also have important distinctions. Porter was an adult and a teacher, not a teenager. Porter's family tried to shield her, her father cleaning blood from her car.

Porter did not go to prison. So what should be the fate of the person who fled after hitting Missy Sjostrom?

Jail seems wrong in a case of a huge mistake and a very bad error in judgment that happened after — after — a terrible accident.

Should there be juvenile sanctions, which would give limited supervision over a defendant who is now 17? A youthful offender sentence? Isn't probation appropriate for someone with no record? How about a fair amount of community service?

The person charged with this crime should get the same result as anyone else would — regardless of the private school, nice house or the number of zeros in the family bank account.

However this ends, the system shouldn't protect a person of privilege. Or just as important, sentence a person because of it.

Under justice, status neither protects nor condemns 06/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 11:22am]
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