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In moment of crisis, do you know how you would react?

The Jennifer Porter case was a perfect storm for outrage.

Published November 8, 2005

The protesters gathered outside the Hillsborough County Courthouse first thing Monday, shouting their outrage through a bullhorn.

"We Love Our Kids," one of their signs said, and "If What Jennifer Porter Got Was Justice, We All Need It."

The case was a perfect storm for outrage. A young woman plows into a group of kids trying to cross a street, then drives away. Two of the children are dead. Her father cleans the blood from her car. She doesn't step forward for days.

Then add these elements: The children - Bryant Wilkins, 13, and his little brother Durontae Caldwell, 3 - were black, living in a poor neighborhood. Porter is white, and quickly lawyered up with one of the biggest guns in town, Barry Cohen. Underlying all that is a justice system with a reputation for sometimes treating black defendants more harshly than white ones.

And Porter ran. It kept coming back to that. Children died, and she ran.

Then the law stepped in, sober and emotionless, as the law has to be. Porter hadn't been drunk, or even reckless. It was dusk, and some streetlights were out. Sometimes a terrible accident is just that: an accident.

Maybe it would have been politically smarter to charge Porter with the deaths of the two boys, easier to fob off on a jury the difficult task of applying existing law to horrific circumstances. But those are the hard decisions we elect a state attorney to make. Prosecutors couldn't justify a case for vehicular homicide. They charged Porter with leaving the scene of an accident involving death.

Here's a question. At some point, did you ask yourself if you would have stopped, or if you might have been scared enough to keep on driving like she did?

Did you want to believe, like me, that no matter how freaked out you were, you would have used that cell phone to call 911 to help whoever you'd hit - before you called your mother to help you?

The law protected Porter's parents from being charged with helping someone related to them, for sheltering their daughter instead of encouraging her to step up. Here's the irony: Had her parents made her go back to the scene of the crash that night, she probably would not have faced criminal charges at all.

Prosecutors wanted her sentenced to three years in prison, but Judge Emmett Lamar Battles considered her clean record and agreed with the defense that she had suffered "extreme trauma at the moment of this horrific event."

On house arrest, she is an all-but-free woman, though if you believe her near-catatonic expression at the hearing, you might think there's other kinds of punishment in the world.

Some have said Porter would have been treated differently had she been black and the dead children white. Holding her responsible for a history of wrongs in the court system is no less troubling than making race an issue for any other defendant.

Would the outrage soften if Porter went to prison? Did she get a break? It's hard to compare her sentence to punishments handed out in other cases of leaving the scene of an accident involving death in Hillsborough County, since most had additional charges like vehicular homicide, or defendants with lengthy records.

But consider the case of Charlene Rivers, accused in 2003 of leaving the scene after she struck and killed a man named Jeffrey Ringling, who had been pushing his moped in the road one afternoon. The prosecutor wanted her behind bars, but the judge sentenced Rivers to probation, with no formal finding of guilt on her record.

Rivers is black. Ringling, the man who died, was white.

We haven't come up with a law that mandates character, or whatever it was that made those people not think twice about diving over the side of the Howard Frankland Bridge the other day to help a family whose SUV had gone into the bay.

The law can't make you do the right thing. But in this case, maybe the law came with a lesson, the kind you learn from your parents as a child: That sometimes, it's not what you do, it's what you do next.

-- Sue Carlton can be reached at

[Last modified November 8, 2005, 20:42:46]

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