Where is the justice?

The very suspicion that judges may be taking the easy route when offered the opportunity is more than distressing.

311_gavel (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Saturday November 28, 2009 was exactly one week before Shachar Greenspan was due to celebrate her bat mitzva. Invitations were out, the party venue was booked and a new dress purchased.
That morning, not far from home, Shachar and a girlfriend waited on a Netanya sidewalk for a green light to cross the street. But out of nowhere a 57-year-old drunk driver, whose blood alcohol level was four times the legal limit, swerved onto the pavement and hit both girls.
Shachar’s friend sustained relatively light injuries but Shachar’s head trauma was so grave that doctors doubted she’d survive. Somehow, however, she clung on to life. But today, she remains a quadriplegic who can only communicate via eye movement.
Last week Petah Tikva traffic court Judge Tal Ostfeld- Navy convicted the driver in a plea-bargain deal, sentenced him to six-months community service, imposed a NIS1,000 fine in four installments (or 10 days in jail) and revoked his driver’s license for six years.
With distasteful understatement, the judge described the consequences of the accident as “quite serious,” and went on to justify her leniency. She noted that the driver isn’t young, was widowed and has nobody to confide in, had a hard life including a heart attack, isn’t a man of means and, most of all, expressed contrition. He cooperated with the authorities; the fact that he saved the judicial system valuable court-time evidently helped suffice, in her view, to let him off with a slap on the wrist.
THIS ISN’T the first stark incongruity between crime and punishment. Following another plea-bargain last July, a driver and her passenger were both handed down three-year terms for the 2009 hit-and-run that left 12- year-old Amir Balahsan of Yehud in irrevocable vegetative state.
Speeding away, they abandoned the motionless boy at the curb, embarked on intensive efforts to cover-up traces of the collision and cold-bloodedly went off to eat without even phoning for an ambulance. With a third-off-for-good-behavior, they’re likely to be free after serving two years. They were also ordered to pay the comatose boy NIS30,000 in damages. Amir’s family described the reparations award as more salt on their wounds.
A few days ago the Balahsans visited and commiserated with the Greenspans.
What makes the Greenspan case especially disgraceful is the fact that the family wasn’t apprised of the sentencing schedule and was denied any opportunity to object to the plea bargain. Everything essentially was done behind its back, adding insult to the pain.
THIS DREADFUL episode leaves us with two disconcerting questions: Why did the prosecution at all opt for a plea bargain and why did the court see fit to accept it? Plea bargains are plausible in select circumstances such as when police have a hard time proving a given defendant’s guilt. In sexual assault cases, it’s argued that sparing the victim the ordeal of reliving the torment supersedes tougher punishment (although testimony may be taken by video rather than in front of the perpetrator).
In other instances the police may wish to protect sources and refrain from exposing informants or witnesses.
Finally, and not always excusably, there is 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 badly bogged down but this specific case is extraordinarily egregious and severely undermines deterrence.
Our system doesn’t oblige judges to abide by prosecution- defense deals. There was no onus on Ostfeld-Navy to accept the bargain.
The very suspicion that judges may be taking the easy route when offered the opportunity is more than distressing.
It undercuts our safety and corrodes our faith in the justice they mete out. The only antidote is for the Knesset to belatedly enact compulsory minimum-sentencing legislation.
Justice, let us not forget, is supposed to blind – ergo, handed down without extraneous considerations.
There’s much complaining in our public discourse at present about waning respect for our judiciary. But the handwringing is disingenuous if we acquiesce to judicial superciliousness and insensitivity of the kind exhibited in this appalling case.