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In some cases, law can deny justice

Published April 16, 2007


As felonies go, the criminal case against 23-year-old Rocky Palacios sounded pretty routine.

Back in February, Palacios' girlfriend and her brother got in an argument outside the family home in Ruskin. Court records say the brother started choking the sister.

Palacios was accused of hitting the brother, then grabbing a gun from his Jeep and firing four times, once at the ground, once in the air, twice toward a garage.

"I was defending her," he would later say in court, though he denied using a gun to do it.

The brother, by the way, is charged with battery on his sister.

So there was Palacios standing before a judge last month, ready to plead guilty to his charges in exchange for probation.

Palacios' record consisted of a few misdemeanors and a conviction for driving while license suspended - fairly minor, in the scheme of what passes through felony courtrooms each day. Everyone, including the prosecutor assigned to the case, was ready to sign off on the deal.

Then the long arm of the law reached out to knock that plea deal right off the table.

A supervising prosecutor in the courtroom realized that Palacios' aggravated assault with a firearm charge made this a 10-20-life case.

You've probably seen those ominous billboards touting then-Gov. Jeb Bush's big push against crime. 10-20-life means 10 years in prison for crimes committed with a gun, 20 years for firing a gun while committing a crime, and 25-to-life if the bullet causes death or serious injury. It's all very tough-on-crime, cowboy justice, convict-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out.

But for Palacios, it meant a man looking at a probation sentence everyone thought was reasonable was suddenly staring at the possibility of two decades in prison.

The deal was off.

Get-tough mandatory minimums are supposed to scare bad guys and make sure those fabled weak-kneed liberal judges don't put the worst of them right back on the street. But they take discretion out of the hands of the judges we put there for the very purpose of considering individual cases.

With these minimum mandatories, judges can't take into account special circumstances that could make a difference in the sentence. There is no nuance, no humanity, in cases that could use some.

"What are we electing judges for?" asks Tom Maiello, the lawyer Palacios hired after the hearing.

Prosecutors can avoid the mandatory sentence under certain circumstances, such as consideration for the victim's wishes or problems with the evidence. Prosecutors must file written reasons for doing this.

But remember, it's a prosecutor's job to prosecute, and a judge's job to hand down sentences.

Local prosecutors declined to comment specifically on Palacios' case because it's pending. Hillsborough State Attorney's Office spokeswoman Pam Bondi said this: "The Legislature has made it clear that minimum mandatory sentences should be imposed in certain cases. We take this very seriously. However, they have given us the ability to work around a minimum mandatory sentence when appropriate."

With a one-size-fits all law like 10-20-life, lives will hang in the balance.

[Last modified April 15, 2007, 23:48:30]

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