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Driver sentenced to two years for hit and run

(ran PC edition)

More than three years after he slammed his car into a 7-year-old bicyclist, then tried to shake the injured boy from his car's hood as he fled, James Tareek Bettis was sentenced Thursday to two years in prison.

Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb listened to a day of emotional testimony from a variety of witnesses _ including Bettis' tearful fiancee and the weeping mother of the injured child _ then sentenced 22-year-old Bettis to two years in prison, followed by three years of probation for leaving the scene of an accident with injuries and culpable negligence.

Bettis' public defender, Bob Focht, called the sentence "a travesty." He compared the charges of Bettis, who is black, with those of white defendants in Pasco County who have been convicted in similar cases.

In court he cited three incidents in which white defendants in the county were punished with probation for offenses that resulted in death. He asked the judge to sentence Bettis to probation.

While alerting Cobb he intended to appeal the sentence, Focht said in court it appeared the State Attorney's Office decided which charges to file based on race.

"The determination of what to charge and what not to charge seems to be made on a spectrum basis by the State Attorney's Office," Focht said.

Outside the courtroom, prosecutor Phil Van Allen, clearly angry at the implication, said race has never been a factor considered by elected State Attorney Bernie McCabe or anyone in his office.

Bettis pleaded no contest in June to both counts stemming from a crash at the intersection of 11th Street and 18th Avenue in Zephyrhills on March 27, 2000.

Witnesses testified during Thursday's sentencing hearing that Bettis revved his car and sped away from a friend's house, crashing into Jeremy Reeves, now 10, as he rode his bike on the street.

Jeremy landed on the hood of Bettis' car, and Bettis swerved his car repeatedly to shake the boy off.

The boy suffered a broken pelvis, damaged spleen and other injuries. He also suffered a head injury that his mother, Patricia Morrison, said has had lasting effects and left him with memory and concentration problems.

Bettis apologized briefly in court Thursday.

"I am very sorry for what I have done," he said. "I really do understand the pain she is going through," he said, referring to Morrison.

Bettis' fiancee, Tiffany Martino, who has a 1-year-old son with him, said Bettis is the family's sole supporter.

"I don't even know what else to do if you take him away from us," she said. "We have nowhere to go."

Morrison addressed the judge briefly, shaking with emotion.

"He's never shown any remorse for what he has done," she said of Bettis. "The only reason he said he was sorry is because he doesn't want to go to jail."

Van Allen told the judge he believed Focht's assertions that Bettis has been working hard to support a family and has obeyed the law, but his actions still demanded punishment.

"I cannot drive from my mind the picture of a scared, hurt, 7-year-old child clinging to the hood of a car, the driver of that car trying desperately to fling him from that car," Van Allen said. "That is something that I cannot forgive."

After Cobb announced his sentence, Focht said the disparity between Bettis' charges and those of the white drivers appeared to be based on race.

Outside the courtroom, Van Allen angrily denied those allegations.

In other cases, the driver might not have been fully at fault, Van Allen said. Bettis, he said, made the situation worse by taking strong action to fling a child from his car by swerving and speeding up as he fled.

"The decision to charge a defendant with anything, or to not charge a defendant, is not one that is made in any part based on the race of the defendant," he said.

As for Focht's allegations, he said they were based on nothing more than a "whimsical aberration."

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