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Ruth: Justice blocked by a shield

Let's try a criminal justice experiment. In our first control group, a regular Joe Blow is at fault in a traffic accident. As the drivers approach each other, Joe physically assaults the other motorist, brandishes a gun and threatens to shoot the accident victim.

In the second control group, everything remains the same, except the motorist attempting to beat up the other driver and waving a gun around happens to be a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office homicide detective with anger management issues.

What do you think the respective outcomes would be? You don't need to be Hercule Poirot to figure out that in the first instance, Joe Blow would be quite properly charged with battery, aggravated assault, perhaps a couple of traffic citations and tossed in the klink.

The officer? Not so much. The Thin Blue Line often is strong enough to resist an intrusion of common sense, not to mention justice.

This was the scenario that unfolded in February when Evan Rees, a 44-year-old Sebring schoolteacher heading home from the Florida State Fair on I-4, was rear-ended by a car driven by Thomas Pettis, a longtime sheriff's deputy. As the two men confronted each other, Pettis grabbed Rees, tossing him to the ground. Witnesses recounted how the deputy, who supposedly is trained to deal with stressful situations, then pulled a gun on the guy he had just run into and threatened to shoot him.

It was about here that more party favors started to be handed out than in an Academy Awards goody bag.

Joe Blow threatening someone with a weapon would have faced a felony charge and as much as three years in prison. But not the Sherlock Holmes of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. Pettis was initially only charged with a single misdemeanor count of battery. Officers on the scene never even bothered to book their brethren into jail. And why is that? Elementary, Dr. Watson. Pettis had a Get Out Of Jail card in his pocket. It's called a badge.

Pettis' good fortune continued when that crime-fighting pillar of law and order, Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober, went along with dismissing the battery charge against the deputy, who had "retired" from the force and agreed to enter an intervention program, perform community service, take an anger management class and pay some fees.

Normally crime victims are consulted before a defendant is allowed to enter a plea deal. But Rees was never consulted. Well, when the home cooking is coming out of the oven, why waste everybody's time with niceties?

Forgive a highly technical, nuanced legal term, but this good ol' boy courthouse back-room deal stinks.

Aside from the appearance that Pettis received a stern talking to for his actions because he was a fellow officer, the plea deal also smacks of a major case of keister covering. The former detective is expected to be a witness in dozens of upcoming homicide trials. And you can't very well have a law enforcement officer with a felony conviction on his record testifying against a murder defendant. So with a wink here and a nod there, suddenly detective Thomas Pettis (retired) becomes a model of probity once again.

But what Ober didn't consider, or perhaps care about, is that even the most addled defense lawyer is going to impeach Pettis' credibility and apparent lapse of judgment in pretrial depositions or in open court before a jury. Then what is his testimony, his honesty, his word worth?

Technically, the case against Pettis remains open until he completes his finger-wagging intervention program, still time for Gov. Rick Scott to order a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into the double-standard special treatment given the deputy. Don't expect Attorney General Pam Bondi, who used to work for Ober, to be much help.

Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, who up until he had a brain infarction in this case had run a pretty ethical department, ought to be more curious about the criminal justice air kiss blown in Pettis' general direction. He also might want to find out why deputies on the scene ordered witnesses to delete cellphone video of the altercation. It's never too late to rediscover a scruple.

Thomas Rees was beaten up. But fair play was mugged, too. That's what happens when cronyism trumps justice.

Ruth: Justice blocked by a shield 05/21/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 6:01pm]
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