Should Justitia remove her blindfold?
Named after the Roman goddess, we know her better as Lady Justice: guardian of our courts. The scales she holds remind us to weigh evidence with care; her sword indicates that punishment must fit the crime. And her blindfold connotes ... well, what?
It's generally accepted that the blindfold represents impartiality. Our system of justice, in theory at least, treats everyone equally and each situation fairly. Yet, as several recent cases illustrate, judges, juries and prosecutors sometimes exhibit a kind of blindness that leads to injustice.
In San Jose, Calif., Miguel Cerda faces seven years to life in prison for an assault he and his brother committed last November. It came after they tracked down a man who, a few hours earlier, had attacked Cerda's 8-year-old stepdaughter, used duct tape to seal her mouth, and then sexually molested her. The molester pleaded no contest and will serve between 19 and 22 years; Cerda could serve longer. Fair? By comparison, in Florida earlier this year, a Broward County father got probation after pummeling a man with rocks and concrete blocks hours after his child reported being sexually abused.
The convoluted nature of California law adds additional irony to the case. According to the Mercury News newspaper, had Cerda killed the attacker rather than injure him, the most he could have received would be 11 years.
Then, there's a case that recently captured the nation's attention involving a Georgia mother whose young son was struck and killed by a hit-run driver. Raquel Nelson and her kids had taken a bus home after a birthday party and, rather than walk more than half a mile to the crosswalk and back, joined several other passengers in trying to navigate the busy street near the bus stop. Nelson's 4-year-old son darted in front of a van and died.
Although the driver had a previous hit-run conviction, he was given only six months in jail. Raquel Nelson, on the other hand, was convicted of "homicide by vehicle" and faced three years behind bars. A burst of publicity by NBC's Today show and other media resulted in over 140,000 messages of protest to the judge, who opted to give Nelson probation plus 40 hours of community service. Nelson was also granted a new trial so that she might clear her name -- perhaps with a jury that, this time, is not blind to the circumstances of her clearly non-criminal mistake.
In Ohio, a woman was sentenced to 10 days in jail plus three years probation for illegally enrolling her kids in a better school in the district where her ex-husband resides. The family lived in the housing projects in Akron, Ohio, and the father's address was in nearby Copley Township. Although the mother, Kelley Williams-Bolar, had nearly completed her studies to become a teacher, the sentence means that under Ohio law she will never be allowed to hold a teaching position.
These stories are not unique. There are numerous cases each year in which judges' hands are tied by mandatory sentencing rules, or in which overly-aggressive prosecutors fail to acknowledge mitigating circumstances, or in which racism affects decisions. Budget cuts in many states are exacerbating this by overloading courts. The American legal system is, for the most part, a model of fairness. But too often it is unable to adjust when circumstances demand that it should.
I wrote a few weeks ago about one such case, involving a California boy who faced life in prison as "an adult" for two murders he allegedly watched someone else commit. Monterey County Judge Marla Anderson, who initially stated that despite having an IQ of just 72, the child exhibited "depravity of the heart," has now moved the case to juvenile court where it should have been in the first place.
Justice must be impartial, but too many cases remind us that it should never be blind.
This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate. Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker, and also the long-time gost of "Candid Camera." He may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com