Sometimes things are so simple that even a child can figure them out.
On March 31, 2004, in a hit-and-run accident, Jennifer Porter, a white dance instructor at Muller Elementary, struck four black siblings crossing 22nd Street, killing two of them.
“I think she needs to be punished because I get punished if I don’t clean my room up,” said 9-year-old Aquina Wilkins – one of the children Porter hit – during Porter’s sentencing hearing. “I think she needs to get punished like I do.”
Hillsborough County Judge Emmett Lamar Battles agrees; he sent Porter to her room. Early Saturday morning, Porter was sentenced to 500 hours of community service work, three years’ probation and two years’ community control – or house arrest.
Supporters of the sentence claim Porter shouldn’t see the inside of a jail because she didn’t intend to run over the children.
They’re right; she didn’t. But she also didn’t intend to stop to see who or what she hit. One can imagine that at 30 to 40 mph, Porter’s estimated speed, four children impart a distinct feeling to the undercarriage of one’s car – especially when one of said children is dragged 150 feet, as Wilkins testified. Nor did she intend to notify the police, as evidenced by her behavior. It took Porter more than a day to contact someone other than her parents regarding the matter: a lawyer. And though her lawyer contacted the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office five days thereafter and identified Porter as the driver of the car that hit the children, Porter didn’t turn herself in until April 28, 2004 – nearly a full month after the accident occurred.
Critics of the sentence claim race was a factor in the judge’s decision. Given the negligence and apathy enshrouding Porter’s actions, it would be difficult to refute them.
But some have tried. Citing the bad advice given to Porter by her parents and possibly her lawyer, as well as Porter’s state of mind at the time, those sympathetic to Porter’s cause claim that she is a victim of circumstance and should not be punished. Battles himself said to Porter at the sentencing hearing, “You are not being punished for the conduct of those who surround you.”
The former point is tautological; no doubt hitting four children with a car would send anyone into a traumatic state. It is the latter, however, where the judge has erred tragically. Porter may have received bad advice from all of her confidants, but she chose to act on it. Her actions amount to gross negligence, and it is that for which she should be punished. Porter is an adult – she must be held accountable for her actions and her decisions. Her sentence is a disgrace to the community and compounds the suffering of all those involved who will endure emotions far worse than guilt for the remainder of their days.
Far more worrying than the extent of Porter’s sentence, however, are the ruling’s ramifications. The case has cast an unnerving pallor over the justice system and called into question just how equality has – or hasn’t – come. Would the sentence be the same if the races were reversed and the events unfolded somewhere else in this country? How about somewhere else in this state?How about somewhere else in this city?