Melissa Sjostrom, a 33-year old homeless woman, was struck by a vehicle going 50 mph near Hyde Park Avenue in Tampa that knocked her out of her shoes and sent her flying 100 feet on Feb. 8, according to police reports.
According to witnesses, the driver paused momentarily and sped off, leaving the woman to die on the street.
A paint chip found at the scene led detectives to an affluent Davis Islands home of now 17-year-old Jordon Valdez, a student at the Academy of the Holy Names, and it matched her Nissan Murano. Though the circumstances seem clear, the events that followed demonstrated bias in the legal system toward wealthy families.
According to police reports, there was no response from Valdez’s home the night of the accident, so police impounded the 2007 Murano and began a hit-and-run investigation The next morning, Robert Valdez, Jordan’s father, discovered the car was impounded when he reported it stolen.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, detective Robert D. Powell eventually visited Robert Valdez at work. At the advice of well-known veteran traffic defense lawyer Ty Trayner, the family refused to talk.
Eventually, all Valdez received was a citation for careless driving, which was soon dismissed by a judge, surprisingly avoiding any significant penalty.
Trayner helped Jordon avoid a first-degree felony charge and an up to 30-year prison sentence that is called for in Florida statutes for fatal hit-and-run accidents.
Five months after Sjostrom’s death, the Hillsborough State Attorney’s office filed adult charges against Valdez. However, Trayner told the Times that prosecutors have made him a plea offer that won’t include jail time.
Valdez’s parents and lawyer feel she should be tried as a juvenile because an adult charge would jeopardize her Bright Futures Scholarship and possibly her college career. This month, her parents sent a letter to family and friends urging them to write to court officials about Valdez’s character and in support of juvenile punishment.
They wrote: “She earned it and deserves it … Taking it away from her will only serve to diminish a child’s sense of purpose and accomplishment.”
The parents should consider the life Valdez allegedly took in the hit-and-run accident. The fact that Valdez’s parents bring up losing a scholarship only serves to ignore the child’s sense of recklessness and disdain for human life.
Valdez also deserves a first-degree felony and prison time.
It seems the family’s financial success is giving their daughter a free pass for someone’s death. She should be convicted of these charges so that justice may be served to the family of the victim.
Valdez was let off easy. Others haven’t been as lucky.
After 18-year-old Adrianna Bachan of California was killed in a hit-in-run accident in April, a $235,000 reward was offered and led to the arrest of 30-year-old Claudia Cabrera, who was charged with a felony, according to LA Weekly.
Jose Rodriguez Pacheco, an immigrant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was sentenced to five years in prison for a fatal hit-and-run.
Valdez is a senior in high school and plans on applying to USF among other schools, her parents said in the letter. Hopefully USF will refuse to give her another free pass.
Justin Rivera is a senior majoring in history.