Saturday, March 12, 2011

Looking Sorry Saves You Three Years in Jail

Yes, I still think about Koua Fong Lee, especially when I see stories like the ones in today's papers: from the Star Tribune, Driver in Crash that Killed U Researcher Gets 5 Years; from the Pioneer Press, Driver in Fatal Crash Sentenced to Five Years.

In this recent case, a drunk guy was going 60 miles an hour on a Minneapolis city street (that's 3o mph over the speed limit, for those of you not from these parts). He ran a stop sign and smashed a car driven by Ethan Johnson and carrying Johnson's wife, father and stepmother. Johnson, a biochemist, musician, and avid bicyclist, was killed, and his father was severely injured to the extent that he can no longer work as a neurologist.

The drunk guy, Kevin Doerr, already had six criminal convictions, and had been prohibited from drinking, using drugs or driving (since he didn't have a license). He fled the scene of the accident.

Okay, so we all remember that Koua Fong Lee was sentenced to eight years, even though there was no credible evidence of negligence, let alone intent, and he didn't flee the scene. What sentence did Doerr, with his record and clear criminal disregard for human life, get?

Five years.

The only thing that can explain this disparity, in my opinion, is cultural bias. Doerr received less than the maximum sentence, according to the Strib, because "Doerr took responsibility for his actions." Not only that, but he'll be allowed to serve an additional two-year sentence for an unrelated assault conviction concurrently.

Koua Fong Lee didn't "take responsibility for his actions" because he knew he wasn't guilty. And he looked impassive at trial, instead of emotional and very sorry for the accident, because that's how he, as a recently arrived Hmong male immigrant, grew up behaving. Hmong men aren't supposed to show emotion, but be in control.

I am not necessarily arguing that Doerr's sentence is too short in an absolute sense. I don't know what the sentence for vehicular homicide should be.

But I do know that I wonder how the judge in Lee's case could have sentenced him to eight years. She's the same judge who later released him, and she seemed logical enough in that decision. But I hope the lack of logic in her original sentence haunts her every day, and reminds her of her unintended bias.

That bias was enough to send Koua Fong Lee to jail for three more years than a stone-drunk jerk with a record.


Michael Leddy said...

In Missouri, a (now former) police officer was just sentenced to eight years for a drunk-driving incident that killed four people. Four eight-year sentences for manslaughter, and seven for assault, all sentences to run concurrently. My mind boggles.

paula devi said...

My mind boggles as well.
A vehicle is a deadly weapon as much as a gun, knife and the like.
If, for whatever reason, someone looses their life because you have used your vehicle as a weapon, you are as responsible for that life or lives as if you used a gun.

As for cultural bias, I see that example clearly. Tragically, most cannot see beneath the surface picture before them. Nothing pierces their consciousness or their unconscious conceptual judgements.