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Wednesday, May 23,2001

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Justice is no longer part of criminal enforcement

Wayne's Word

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Justice is no longer part of criminal enforcement

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by Wayne Laugesen (letters@boulderweekly.com)

It's inevitable. Soon we'll hear the hue and cry of so-called child welfare advocates asking the criminal justice system to hammer the crap out of Diana Rodriguez. She's the poor 18-year-old mother in Colorado Springs who left her 13-month-old son in the car Saturday as she worked an eight-hour shift at McDonald's.

Temperatures reached 130 degrees in the car, and Rodriguez found her child dead at the end of her shift. By all accounts, she loved this baby and intended no harm. She simply got busy and frazzled, forgot to stop off at the baby sitter's house on the way to work, and accidentally left the child in the car.

It's an easy story to believe. Anyone who drives to work has probably had one of those mornings when he arrives at the office and can't remember anything about the commute. Driving can become an involuntary reflex, of sorts, and it's in that state that one can forget almost anything.

Hellish punishment

Upon finding her dead child, Rodriguez began a punishment few human beings will ever experience. This woman must live with unbearable loss and guilt for the rest of her natural life. For years to come I imagine her family and friends will be on suicide watch. Every day for this mother will be a lonely, painful, depressing hell.

Nobody has publicly disputed the fact that Rodriguez accidentally killed her child. When her shift was over and she discovered the baby, she immediately went screaming back into the restaurant with the baby in her arms. Attempts to revive the baby failed, and he was pronounced dead at Memorial Hospital.

Rodriguez was hysterical throughout the event, and had to be sedated and taken to the hospital for treatment herself. She has gone into seclusion.

Prosecutors are already examining their options, speaking publicly about possibly charging Rodriguez with child abuse or worse. For what purpose? Is this woman a menace to society with a debt to pay? Hardly. She's a young, working class mother who drove to work and made a deadly mistake. It was an accident, plain and simple. She will pay dearly, and no other action needs to occur.

Don't think for a moment that just because she forgot to drop off the child, she didn't love him or care about him. Love for a child and the ability to space off one part of a daily routine are not mutually exclusive. I love my one-year-old as much as anything or anyone on earth. Yet often when driving down the road I'll snap my head around in sheer terror, for a moment thinking I may have forgotten to load the sleeping baby in the car at the last place I stopped. It's never happened, but I know how easily it could.

Life is fragile, and it can be snuffed out by one stupid mistake at any moment. Society used to accept that, but today we have little concern for someone else who's grieving and in pain over causing another person's death. We hate people like this, and choose to exact revenge by treating their actions as criminal offenses.

Another mistake

Just as Rodriguez likely faces charges for an accident that will punish her for life, a couple in Lafayette may face charges as a result of their two daughters suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning while returning from a Sunday outing to Boyd Lake in Loveland. The girls were riding in the back of a pickup covered by a camper shell. Somehow, exhaust fumes filled the camper and the girls were found unconscious. Both have recovered and have been released from the hospital.

The parents had no criminal intent. They meant no harm to their children, and they will never, ever make this mistake again. In fact, having experienced the scare of a lifetime they'll probably obtain a carbon monoxide monitor before ever letting their children ride in a car again. I suspect they'll be vigilant in protecting their loved ones from odorless, invisible gasses of all kinds. Lesson learned, and they owe no debt to society.

Oh, but that won't matter. Cops and prosecutors will learn that technically they can charge these parents as criminals, so they undoubtedly will. They'll do so because it's an opportunity to "send a message," the most common phrase used today by judges and prosecutors when explaining harsh punishments.

When moving is murder

And that's why Lisl Auman rots in prison today, for a crime everyone knows she didn't commit. She merely made a bad, youthful decision to retrieve a few of her possessions from a home she shared with an abusive ex-boyfriend. She didn't intend for the acquaintance she brought with her to run from cops, then shoot a cop and take his own life. Yet she has been convicted and sentenced as if she committed first degree murder herself, getting life without parole.

That's because our criminal justice system isn't about "justice," anymore. That's a term from yesterday. Today, it's about punishment and sending a convenient message that might magically help us engineer crimes and accidents and stupid decisions out of existence.

And the electorate goes along with this, and even encourages it by electing prosecutors and politicians who promote it, and by voting to retain judges who carry it out. We go along with it because we hate each other. Just let me have my two cars, my home and my big-screen color TV and to hell with anyone else.

One friend told me that if Lisl Auman rots in prison for the rest of her life, too bad. If it sends a message to someone who might be considering an unlawful act, then it's worth it.

Only a truly selfish society allows its criminal justice system to hang people out to dry in order to "send a message." But the selfish should beware. They, too, can have accidents, make poor judgments and suffer lapses of memory. In today's world, any of the above can land them in prison for life.

Send letters to the editor to: letters@boulderweekly.com. Fax: 303-494-2585. Snail mail: Boulder Weekly Letters, 690 S. Lashley Lane, Boulder, CO 80305. Contact Wayne Laugesen at Wayne@Laugesen.com.

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