Extend to all a chance for equal treatment

Published November 8, 2005

Some people can't believe that Jennifer Porter isn't going to prison.

After pleading guilty to charges arising from a March 2004 accident that killed two siblings and injured two others, the Land O'Lakes resident could have been sentenced to three years in prison.

Instead, early Saturday morning Judge Emmett Lamar Battles sentenced Porter to two years of house arrest, three years of probation, 500 hours of community service work and ordered her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

I'm heartened that mercy prevailed over judgment. But it's impossible to read about the Porter case without thinking about the Citrus County case involving William Thornton IV, the young black man who in September was sentenced to 30 years in prison, the maximum allowed under state law, by Circuit Judge Ric Howard.

Thornton, a first-time offender, pleaded no contest to charges of vehicular homicide and driving without a license in the December 2004 traffic death of two people.

This isn't about sending Porter to jail to prove a point.

Reading Judge Battles' statement as he prepared to sentence the elementary school dance teacher, I was struck by how far the judge leaned to view Porter in the best possible light, how far he went to embrace her humanity.

Judge Battles found every reason to be sympathetic:

"It's also important that you Ms. Porter are not being punished for the conduct of those who surrounded you in this matter . . . . "

Judge Battles was saying it wasn't really her fault. She got bad advice. She can't be saddled with the mistakes of her parents. This wasn't a daddy's girl gone bad. This was a dutiful daughter whose respect for her parents outweighed her responsibility to do the right thing. ". . . Based on the testimony the experts presented here today, as well as all the facts presented . . . , the court is going to find that Jennifer Porter, indeed as doctors described, suffered extreme trauma at the moment of this horrific event." It sounds like Porter was the victim. She's the one suffering from the horrors of that night. Battles doesn't extend those sentiments to Bryant Wilkins, 13, and his brother, Durontae Caldwell, 3, who were left dead on a dark Tampa street.

The boys' mother, Lisa Wilkins, wanted Porter to be punished for her actions, for driving off and leaving her children on the street. For her, Saturday morning's sentence said too much about how society values who died and who lived that night.

"It's a race thing, that's how I see it," she said after the verdict. "If it would have happened to me, I would have been in jail."

Wilkins and others who cry racism are going to be dismissed as race baiters, of pulling the ol' Johnnie Cochran.

But I would hope that when folks cry racism in this tragic case, they are not just saying the justice system clearly showed favoritism based on the defendant's and victims' color, that black life is worth far less.

What's at work here is much more subtle. By even mentioning racism, it may prevent us from understanding why reasonable people of color would be so concerned by this sentencing.

This outcome is remarkable for the judicial system's ability to show empathy toward a defendant, to see a future in light of a past failure, to see a life worth salvaging after a screwup.

If this is the kind of justice meted out every day, then we have a system we can believe in, a system we can truly trust.

But it isn't. And the voices of anger you hear are of those who are not only dismayed by the resolution of the Porter case but are frustrated by the nagging fear that their sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews will never receive that kind of treatment, the benefit of the doubt, a second chance.

All they're asking is that the door of empathy through which Porter walked Saturday morning remain open.

--Andrew Skerritt can be reached in central Pasco at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com