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In some cases, we may be blind to justice

Again and again we've seen it, the beginnings of a criminal case so clear-cut, so black and white in terms of wrong and right that we know without question what justice would be.

Remember the video of burly boot camp guards surrounding a collapsing kid?

The blond bombshell teacher caught in a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old student?

The young woman who ran into a group of children with her car and drove away?

Then things like facts, circumstances and the letter and limit of the law can come into play — not to mention the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence and the sensibilities of victims, witnesses and juries. Those cases turned out differently than a lot of us expected.

(Okay, maybe the french fry granny's not-guilty this week in the fracas at a Clearwater McDonald's did end as we thought it would — though not without a judge's observation that she had been felony-level rude herself.)

Which brings us to the Hills­borough jail deputy and the quadriplegic arrestee who was dumped from his wheelchair in the booking area and searched, an act caught on a video so alarming it made national news.

Could there be any excuse, any mitigation, for what we saw, detention deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones behind the wheelchair, Brian Sterner sprawling to the floor?

Months later, and Marshall-Jones is entering a pre-trial intervention program that sidesteps a trial for felony abuse of the disabled and the possibility of up to five years in prison. This happened with the blessing of Sterner, whose attorney Michael Maddux spoke of forgiveness and reasonableness.

It is important to note Marshall-Jones resigned and is no longer working as a deputy, and that Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee himself apologized for what happened to Sterner.

Sterner intends a lawsuit.

So what might have happened had the criminal case gone to trial?

Marshall-Jones' attorney Norman Cannella likely would have argued that the deputy was unaware of the extent of Sterner's disability.

In a Sheriff's Office report, Marshall-Jones says she repeatedly asked Sterner if he could stand up, and that he told her "I can but I won't! Do your job! Earn your money! Move me!"

Another deputy testified about hearing Sterner "more or less" say "if you want me to stand, make me stand."

Sterner, however, told investigators he repeatedly said that he was a quadriplegic who could not stand up.

It's unclear whether jurors would have heard anything of Sterner's history of being involuntarily committed for mental health concerns, or whether it would have made any difference. Maybe they would have decided the deputy should have known how to handle the situation.

It would have been interesting to hear the testimony of Marshall-Jones, who had a courthouse reputation for being reasonable and good at her job, at odds with that video. One judge spoke on her behalf to a reporter after the news broke. Another took himself off her case, saying he could not be impartial because of his respect for her.

How all that might have played in criminal court we'll never know.

But what does it tell us? Maybe that what we see may not be all there is. And endings we never expected can be justice, too.

In some cases, we may be blind to justice 07/11/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 7:51pm]

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