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The other casualty in the tragedy of Sabrina


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2000

The other day an 18-wheeler passed me in downtown Tampa. One rear panel of the truck carried a picture of Sabrina Aisenberg and a message listing an 800 number for anyone who knows her whereabouts to call.

What a joke.

The picture on the side of that truck is not the photograph of a missing child. It is an icon that manages to sum up in one sweet face every doubt we have about fundamental institutions.

The family:

Would a couple tagged by their neighbors with every happy adjective of suburban life murder their infant child?

The defense lawyer:

Is the Aisenbergs' camera-loving freedom fighter, Barry Cohen, straight from a movie about lawyers willing to bend any fact, fudge any argument, cross any line, to win?

The law:

Were the sheriff's deputies who have chased this case since Sabrina's disappearance three years ago so convinced of the Aisenbergs' guilt but so hard-pressed to prove it that they misled the judge who granted them permission to bug the Aisenbergs' house?

Are the federal prosecutors who have charged the Aisenbergs with perjury just as desperate, so they based their case on tapes that, magically, nobody but them can find sense in?

Cover enough trials and you learn that none produces a precisely correct result. Somebody's story -- his version of the truth -- is believed. Another's is not.

Whether the version accepted is completely accurate is beside the point. This is the best that people can do.

But the nature of this case puts it on a higher moral plane.

The nature of this case makes watching the fudging, posturing and bungling in court almost unendurable.

The hearing going on at Tampa's federal courthouse reveals not just the weakness of the evidence and the stoniness of the Aisenbergs, but the lengths to which adults will go to save themselves, and their point of view.

If Sabrina were alive, she'd be 31/2 years old.

She'd be a pest one minute, a heart breaker the next.

Her parents' emotions would rise and fall on the waves of her behavior.

They'd love her past words. Then they'd have to choke back their own fits of temper at what she did that she wasn't supposed to do.

They would marvel at every new sentence that popped out of her mouth, every question she asked, and drive themselves crazy with wonder and worry about the kind of girl she would turn out to be.

There would be videos of a bigger, bolder child, who had left behind crawling for walking, running, leaping.

She would have a favorite doll, a red wagon, scratched knees and a bedtime routine of books, teddy bears and good night kisses.

There is none of this, of course; just a spectacle of adults trying to out-maneuver one another.

I don't believe the Aisenbergs and don't want to believe their lawyer. I wanted to put my faith in the detectives and prosecutors obliged to right this wrong.

But they may have misled a judge. They withheld evidence. Their much-heralded tapes are a muddle.

The Aisenbergs may escape the box they are in at the moment.

But our faith that the truth -- at least its most reasonable version -- can be found will still be held hostage.

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