(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There’s lots of squawk in our public discourse about waning respect for our judiciary. But the hand-wringing is disingenuous if we fail to take notice of judicial superciliousness and insensitivity.
The latest case in point: The tragic hit-and-run last year that left 12-year-old Amir Balahsan of Yehud in an irrevocable vegetative state but produced a mere slap on the offenders’ wrist.
Driver Pnina Toren and passenger Omri Naim were sentenced to three years. With a third off for good behavior, they’re likely to be free in two years. They were also ordered to pay the comatose boy NIS 30,000 in damages. This preposterous award only pours salt on the wounds of Amir’s family.
There are approximately 800 hit-and-runs in this country each year. But this one goes beyond an offense that’s anyway so odious that the law designates a nine-year sentence for it.
The couple didn’t just abandon their bleeding victim. They sped away and immediately embarked on intensive attempts to cover up all traces of the crime. They weren’t unwitting, traumatized or panic-stricken individuals (as some hit-and-run drivers claim to be). They were scheming and aware of their wrongdoing. They took the damaged car to an auto shop to repair dents and wash off Amir’s blood and other evidence. They then went to a restaurant and dined calmly... as the boy lay motionless at the curb.
Later they claimed they weren’t responsible for the original injury but that Amir, riding a scooter, suddenly appeared in the path of their car. Even if this had been the case, it in no way justifies deserting him and then calculatingly tampering with the evidence.
THIS SORDID episode leaves us with two disconcerting questions: Why did the prosecution opt for a plea-bargain? And why did the court see fit to accept it? To be sure, plea-bargains make sense in certain circumstances – such as when police have a hard time proving what they are convinced is the defendant’s guilt. Moreover, in sexual assault cases, it may be argued that sparing the victim from the ordeal of reliving the torment supersedes tougher punishment (although testimony may be taken by video rather than in front of the perpetrator). There are also cases in which the police are loath to betray sources and expose informants or witnesses.
Last but not least, there is, regrettably, a bureaucratic impetus. If every case in the justice system went to trial, it is maintained, the courts would be so overloaded that they would effectively be shut down. Plea bargaining allows prosecutors to obtain guilty pleas in cases that might otherwise go to trial.
Our courts are indeed hopelessly bogged down, but this specific case is so egregious that speeding up processes and saving money are intolerable excuses. Likewise, the prosecution faced no insuperable difficulties in making the charges stick. They were incontrovertibly backed up by traffic surveillance cameras. Issues like protecting victims or witnesses weren’t remotely relevant either.
No satisfactory rationale exists for going easy on this couple. The message this sends to Israel’s numerous negligent (if not reckless) drivers undermines deterrence.
In our system, furthermore, judges clearly aren’t bound by prosecution-defense deals. There was no onus on the Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court to abide by the plea agreement. And the harsh condemnation that came from the bench for the couple’s callousness doesn’t begin to mitigate the judicial incongruity.
The very suspicion that judges may be taking the easy way out when
offered the opportunity is more than distressing. It affects the safety
of us all and severely undermines our faith in the justice they mete
As Amir’s distraught father noted, “three years is what the disturbed
man who hurled his shoe at [Supreme Court chief justice Dorit] Beinisch
got. Where is the sense of proportion? This pair sentenced Amir to a
lifetime of unconsciousness.”
Yossi Balahsan voiced his own personal anguish. Yet we all have cause to
question the frequent and increasingly routine reliance on deals that
skew the law and chip away at the notion of equal justice for all.