Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | January 26, 2004

Importance of prosecutorial discretion

I read with interest the report about the fatal accident that took the life of Gilroyan Jeremy Cooner on Dec. 29.

Investigators have concluded that the accident on rain-slicked Luchessa Avenue near Princevalle Street was the fault of Brandon Casquilho, 32, of Hollister, who was driving his Dodge Dakota pickup truck too fast for the road and weather conditions, hydroplaned while negotiating a curve before hitting Cooner, 20, who was driving a Toyota MR-2, head-on.

No charges have yet been filed against Casquilho, and the article didn’t indicate if they are a possibility at a future date.

But I have to wonder, if charges are brought, will they follow the model established by San Benito County District Attorney John Sarsfield when his office handled a fatal accident involving Gilroyan Robert Orabuena?

I’ll bet that San Benito County resident Casquilho is hoping Santa Clara County justice is infinitely more merciful.

Otherwise, he could look forward to spending more than a month in jail on trumped-up second-degree murder charges, contemplating his possible sentence of 25 years to life in prison. He could be held on charges that have absolutely no evidence to back them up (in Orabuena’s case, the charges were driving under the influence, even though repeated tests showed Orabuena had no drugs or alcohol in his system). He could try to beg and borrow money and mortgage his assets to post a ridiculously high $1 million bail. He could lose his job while wasting time in the county lockup. He could be serving a one-year term in county jail on a dubious vehicular manslaughter conviction.

Those are just some of the, er, highlights of Orabuena’s tragic tale after misjudging the timing of a left turn and hitting a speeding Harley-Davidson, killing the motorcyclist.

However, I’m betting that justice in Santa Clara County – at least in this case – is different than justice in San Benito County.

It’s the reasons why justice varies from place to place and case to case that perplex and trouble me.

***

The continuing drama unfolding at the Morgan Hill Unified School District’s board meetings – the soap opera-like meetings have run so long that they’ve had to be continued to the next night twice in recent months – has had me contemplating the nature of leadership.

Trustees recently altered a decision to increase the school district’s social studies high school graduation requirement from two years to four years. After an acrimonious debate that featured school board members leaving the dais to regain their composure, trustees changed the requirement to three years of social studies.

But some who objected to the change did so on the grounds that once a decision is made, true leaders stick with it no matter what.

Say what? I don’t buy that for a minute.

If a decision is wrong, if a mistake is made, the best course of action is to acknowledge the error as soon as possible and correct it.

Do those who advocated sticking with the decision because it was already made really want students to learn the opposite lesson? Do they want students to think “Gee, I started smoking, it was a dumb decision, but I’m stuck with it now” – and never try to kick the habit? Do they want students to think, “Well I declared myself to be an engineering major, but I’ve got no aptitude or love for it, but I’ll just have to muddle through” – rather than finding a major that suits their talents and interests?

It’s not often I agree with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but he was right when he said, “It isn’t making mistakes that’s critical; it’s correcting them and getting on with the principal task.”

Or, as scientist Dr. Orlando Battista put it, “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”

For those who doubted the wisdom of Morgan Hill’s trustees revisiting a controversial and – according to many – ill-advised decision on social studies graduation requirements, please be reassured. If nothing else, trustees set an example of the importance of correcting one’s mistakes as quickly as possible, minimizing the damage and moving on to other business.

Perhaps trustees didn’t do it as gracefully or politely as they might have, but at least they didn’t demonstrate the folly of sticking with a poor choice.

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