The Baton Rouge advocate reported yesterday that the mother of a baby killed in a car crash has been charged with negligent homicide.
I’m not one to say that the loss of a child is by definition punishment enough when a parent or parents are responsible for fatal injuries to a child. I’m perfectly fine with charging parents who refuse to get medical care in the face of an obvious health crisis. I’m fine doing that whether they did so because of some issue that ultimately has a reasonable basis (:cough: Tuskeegee :cough:) or whether they did so because of some issue that has nothing rational even at some distant core (:cough: faith healing :cough:). The charges, however, need to be proportionate. In this case, they clearly are not. But you’ll have to stay with me to get more on that later.
The criminal justice system in the USA has terrible problems, and most of the time we associate these with the country’s racist history – for good reason. At its most rotten, corrupt core, however, are two doctrines that are in direct conflict with the USA’s own constitution: prosecutorial discretion and immunity. Discretion permits prosecutors to charge persons guilty of similar behavior with different crimes, or to charge some with a crime and choose not to indict others at all. The thinking is that resources are limited and some people are more amenable to intervention to change bad behavior. If a prosecutor feels that one person is intransigent and another is already reformed, why should we have equal punishment? In theory, this different treatment is permissible even with wildly varying treatment and the prosecutor is given broad discretion, but that discretion, again in theory, does have limits. If congress cannot pass a law that discriminates based on race, then, say murder statutes cannot discriminate on the race of the perp or the victim. Nor can any other law. Thus the prosecutor can have no basis in law for treating different suspects differently on the basis of race.
Unfortunately, there is also the doctrine of prosecutorial immunity. The thinking here is that prosecutors must try some cases where people are not found guilty or the jury trial system is a mere sham. If prosecutors could be held accountable for abuses of power, then wouldn’t anyone found innocent want to file a suit against a prosecutor? Is it really reasonable of human beings that when actually believing someone to be guilty, no prosecutor in the country is going to call the defendant names or disparage the defendant’s ethics or character over drinks with colleagues? And if some percentage of those persons are found not guilty, wouldn’t they then be likely to use such statements in an action to penalize the prosecutor, even though the prosecutor is actually most likely to make such statements when acting ethically (i.e. prosecuting persons that they actually believe are guilty)?
And so we have a doctrine of immunity that, when combined with broad discretion makes it impossible to hold bad prosecutors accountable. Though in theory the government cannot discriminate racially, the check against such racism is a lawsuit. But there is no recourse when a prosecutorial office is enacting racism by overcharging defendants in one racial or ethnic group to scare them with long sentences into agreeing to plead to a lesser crime (that might still be disproportionately harsh compared to the underlying behavior) and then undercharging or not charging at all defendants of another racial or ethnic group. The prosecutorial immunity prevents even quite reasonable suits from going forward. Ultimately this means that there is no meaningful check on prosecutorial violations of right.
In a racist country, that means that racism will become entrenched in prosecutorial offices to varying degrees. In a sexist country, that means that sexism will become entrenched in prosecutorial offices to varying degrees.
And thus Baton Rouge.
About a month ago, 8 people were traveling in a single Nissan, including 4 adults and 4 children. This meant that there were more people in the car than seatbelts. One child was an infant, in an infant’s car seat/carrier. The child was about 1 year old and the child’s Black mother was not driving.
Another person was traveling alone, driving in a single Corvette.
The vehicles were traveling in opposite directions on a road called Airline Highway. While I wasn’t there, the descriptions of the crash are clear: the Nissan was turning left onto Florline Boulevard on a green light. The Corvette was proceeding forward through the intersection on the same green light. The Nissan made it partway through its turn before being struck by the Corvette. The impact rolled the Nissan and everyone inside was injured to some degree, but the injuries to the infant, her name was Seyaira Stephens, were more severe and ultimately fatal.
Normally in such a crash you’d assign blame to the driver of the Nissan in which Seyaira Stephens was riding. After all, legally the vehicle turning left must yield to the vehicle that is not turning. But the driver’s mistake becomes more understandable when calculations based on impact effects are compared with the sensors responsible for activating the Corvette’s airbag and the two are exactly in agreement that the Corvette was traveling 94 miles per hour at the moment of impact.
That’s the moment of impact, mind you, so if the driver of the Vette put on the brakes for even a moment before the impact, the initial speed could have been much higher, and even just letting one’s foot off the gas for a second before impact would have made the traveling speed a bit higher. The speed limit on that stretch of Airline Highway is 50 mph.
And so we can picture the scene: The driver of an overcrowded Nissan is proceeding with reasonable caution. Wanting to turn left, she looks ahead and sees the headlights of an oncoming car, but the lights are so distant that they should not affect the safety of her turn. She begins her turn, but the lights close the distance at an uncommon and literally surprising rate. Without the ability to accelerate fast enough to get out of the way and in the middle of a turn already (turning left harder risks crashing into anyone stopped in the oncoming lanes of Florline and turning back right only turns a t-bone into a head-on), at the time the Corvette’s illegal, unreasonable, and dangerous speed becomes apparent, there is literally nothing the driver of the Nissan could do to prevent the collision.
The driver of the Corvette was arrested for negligent homicide after the death of Seyaira, but several weeks later her mother was also arrested for the same exact crime. Why arrest this mom for negligent homicide? Was there a certain recklessness to taking children in a car with 7 seatbelts for 8 persons? Sure. But there are many laws to prosecute parental negligence and only a tiny handful are as severe as negligent homicide. What, then, justifies subjecting the Corvette driver and Seyaira’s mother to the same legal punishment?
Baton Rouge says that Seyaira could not have suffered the particular injuries she did if the child’s carseat had been fully and properly secured to the car via a seatbelt in good working order. It’s even possible, they say, that the child was strapped into the carseat but the carseat was then held on someone’s lap or otherwise not secured to the structure of the car at all. Moreover, the straps on the carseat weren’t as tight as they needed to be for full security. Being a parent, I know that this can happen at the end (or beginning) of winter when different amounts of clothing or blankets are needed from day to day. Yes, it’s not ideal. Yes, it’s a risk to the child. No, it’s not something that deserves a sentence of hard labor for not less than two nor more than five years. Even the fact that the carseat was either negligently secured or potentially even carried on a lap (or otherwise not secured directly to the car) seems rather insufficient to justify that sentence.
So why are the Corvette driver and Seyaira’s mom facing the same sentence? If failing to check the straps and working order of a seatbelt cannot justify the same sentence as driving a hundred miles an hour into the side of another vehicle, then what does?
Well, there’s always the fact that Seyaira’s mom is a Black woman and the driver of the Corvette is an off-duty cop.
Let’s be clear about the arrest as well: the prosecutors have not actually indicted Seyaira’s mom, nor have they indicted the off-duty cop. So far, these are only the actions of the police department, the same police department that is paying the driver’s salary while he takes a leave to deal with the trauma of being investigated. But there simply is no reasonable case for treating the mother’s actions and the driver’s actions as anywhere close to morally equivalent. Even if the prosecutor’s office later decides to charge the mother differently (or not charge her at all), there has already been unreasonable and racist and sexist treatment of a Black woman in this case. Yet, prosecutors can actually bring this to trial and even advocate for a harsher sentence for the Black woman than the cop and face no professional or legal consequences at all.
The danger that this case will proceed with yet more racism and yet worse effects is manifest. If you live in Baton Rouge, I urge you to contact East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III and express your opinion on the (in)justice so far in this case. If you live in Louisiana – anywhere – I urge you to contact your governor and/or your legislative representatives. They need to know that we’re watching.
And we’re not watching enough, there are hundreds if not thousands of cases as egregious as this one playing out across the USA, but this is the one that came to my notice today, and if we don’t tell them now that we see the abuse of law inherent in such arrests and in the many prosecutions and sentences in analogous circumstances, we will have no after-the-fact recourse due to the interaction of prosecutorial discretion and immunity.
Contact someone today, then if you have time, use social media or even just the comments below to let people know what you did. It will encourage others and, ultimately, expressing our outrage at a vastly mistargeted and unjust legal system is a vital precursor to making it change. Without our outrage, Seyaira’s mother Brittany Stephens will face prison time doing hard labor, and so will an endless future number of average people whose minor, quotidian errors come to the attention of an unjust system only because of the blatantly awful acts of people whom society would prefer not to blame.