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The Jennifer Porter case

Her lenient sentence reopened the debate about how race and class figure into our criminal justice system. It's a problem that needs to be addressed.

A Times Editorial
Published November 13, 2005


It should come as no surprise the Jennifer Porter hit-and-run case was resolved to nearly no one's satisfaction. Or that it has reopened the emotional debate over how race and class figure into our criminal justice system.

The 29-year-old former Tampa teacher was sentenced to house arrest and probation for leaving the scene of an accident that killed two children last year. Prosecutors wanted Porter to serve prison time. Critics argued that she, as a white defendant, got a break from a judicial system that devalues black victims. While some prison time would have been appropriate, Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles' sentence was not unreasonable. This case was not decided on race, but on Porter's record, the circumstances of the accident and the law.

It is easy to frame the case of a white defendant and black victims solely in a racial context. But prosecutors agreed to Porter's plea deal, which called for a maximum three years' imprisonment, because the evidence showed many factors contributed to the deaths of Bryant Wilkins and his brother, Durontae Caldwell. State Attorney Mark Ober, after weighing the evidence, charged Porter with the lesser crime of leaving the scene instead of vehicular homicide. Porter was not driving dangerously. She was not impaired. The crash occurred after dark, witnesses said the street lights were out and the children ran into the road reportedly outside the crosswalk. None of this excuses Porter's decision not to stop. Nor does it show recklessness on Porter's part that rises to the legal standard for homicide. By working out a plea, the state ensured the tragedy would not go unpunished.

Many simply wanted Porter penalized for a crime she didn't face - the deaths of the two children. Battles' sentence was within the law, given Porter's clean criminal record, the accidental nature of the crash and the contributing factors beyond her control. She was not in court for killing these children but for failing to stop. While her own plea deal accepted the prospect of prison to avoid a jury, neither Ober nor Battles, who hold elected office, grandstanded the tragedy for political gain. That would have compounded anger in the community had prosecutorial misconduct or judicial vengeance sunk the case on appeal.

What is harder to understand than the law is why a teacher devoted to her students failed to do the right thing, and why her parents went to such lengths to shield their adult child from her responsibility. Porter's father wiped some blood from the car and instructed his daughter to go about her business. Defense experts said she suffered from shock and stress. She took several days to come forward. Battles made the point that punishing her for the misdeeds of her family, who were not charged, would be unfair.

Though hers was not an example of a racial double standard in the courts, the disparity African-Americans face, both as victims and defendants, is a real problem society needs to address. The black teenager sentenced in Citrus County to 30 years for a deadly auto accident is but the latest outrageous example of an unequal justice system. The way to combat that disparity is first to recognize that it exists and then distinguish discriminatory practices from cases where the parties merely belong to different races.

African-Americans who believe the scales of justice are tilted against them have history on their side. That history cannot be ignored in trying to understand the anger among many blacks over the leniency Porter received. But it's not just minorities who too often are treated differently under the law; class also is a disadvantage. Porter's sentence had less to do with her race than the fact that she was represented by Barry Cohen, a top-gun Tampa defense attorney who took the case without a fee.

We have to face the fact that poor people, whatever their race, too often wind up going to prison because they can't afford to mount a strong defense. Like the teenager in Citrus, they stand before the court with a public defender at their side and hope for leniency. Sad to say, chances are that if Jennifer Porter had been a poor black woman represented by a court-appointed attorney and charged with leaving the scene of an accident that killed two white children, she would be serving jail time.