accepted that the blindfold represents impartiality. Our system of justice, in
theory at least, treats everyone equally and each situation fairly.
Yet, as several recent cases illustrate, judges, juries and prosecutors sometimes
exhibit a kind of blindness that leads to injustice.
In San Jose, Calif., Miguel Cerda faces seven years to life in prison for
an assault he and his brother committed last November. It came after they tracked
down a man who, a few hours earlier, had attacked Cerda’s 8-year-old stepdaughter,
used duct tape to seal her mouth, and then sexually molested her.
The molester pleaded no contest and will serve between 19 and 22 years; Cerda
could serve longer. Fair? By comparison, in Florida earlier this year, a Broward
County father got probation after pummeling a man with rocks and concrete blocks
hours after his child reported being sexually abused.
The convoluted nature of California law adds additional irony to the case.
According to the Mercury News newspaper, had Cerda killed the attacker rather
than injure him the most he could have received would be 11 years.
Then there’s a case that recently captured the nation’s attention
involving a Georgia mother whose young son was struck and killed by a hit-run
driver. Raquel Nelson and her kids had taken a bus home after a birthday party
and, rather than walk more than half a mile to the crosswalk and back, joined
several other passengers in trying to navigate the busy street near the bus stop.
Nelson’s 4-year-old son darted in front of a van and died.
Although the driver had a previous hit-run conviction, he was given only six
months in jail. Raquel Nelson, on the other hand, was convicted of “homicide
by vehicle” and faced three years behind bars. A burst of publicity by
NBC’s Today show and other media resulted in over 140,000 messages of protest
to the judge, who opted to give Nelson probation plus 40 hours of community service.
Nelson was also granted a new trial so that she might clear her name – perhaps
with a jury that, this time, is not blind to the circumstances of her clearly
In Ohio, a woman was sentenced to 10 days in jail plus three years probation
for illegally enrolling her kids in a better school in the district where her
ex-husband resides. The family lived in the housing projects in Akron, Ohio,
and the father’s address was in nearby Copley Township.
Although the mother, Kelley Williams-Bolar, had nearly completed her studies
to become a teacher, the sentence means that under Ohio law she will never be
allowed to hold a teaching position.
These stories are not unique. There are numerous cases each year in which
judges’ hands are tied by mandatory sentencing rules, or in which overly-aggressive
prosecutors fail to acknowledge mitigating circumstances, or in which racism
affects decisions. Budget cuts in many states are exacerbating this by overloading
The American legal system is, for the most part, a model of fairness. But
too often it is unable to adjust when circumstances demand that it should.
I wrote a few weeks ago about one such case, involving a California boy who
faced life in prison as “an adult” for two murders he allegedly watched
someone else commit. Monterey County Judge Marla Anderson, who initially stated
that despite having an IQ of just 72 the child exhibited “depravity of
the heart,” has now moved the case to juvenile court where it should have
been in the first place.
Justice must be impartial, but too many cases remind us that it should never
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.