Elizabeth L. Parker, Esq.
DUI KILLER BUYS HIS WAY OUT OF LONGER SENTENCE The Palm Beach Post December 2003 The sentencing last week of a Wellington man who pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter suggests the existence of two justice systems: one for people with money and another for those without it. The night before his court hearing, Dennis McLennand Jr., 26, offered $100,000 to the family of the 3-month-old baby he killed in a crash along Interstate 95 while driving drunk in 2001. Reynaldo and Claudio Aguila accepted the money, then reversed themselves and decided not to request a long sentence. Instead, they asked Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Stephen Rapp to be lenient with McLennand. Astonishingly, the judge acquiesced and sentenced McLennand to two years in prison when the plea bargain on the table called for five years. The original deal, which was below state sentencing guidelines, also had required only $5,000 in restitution. Assistant State Attorney Elizabeth Parker objected to the favorable agreement but could do nothing to stop it. She told Judge Rapp that he was allowing McLennand to “buy his way out of prison.” She accurately described the disturbing message the amended deal sends: “If you have money, you can get your sentence lowered.” After such a travesty, what does society tell defendants who have empty bank accounts? Should the courts also accept credit cards or installment payments? How does the system set it’s prices? If McLennand had been willing to pay $200,000, could he have walked free? If he had only $50,000 to pay, would he have gotten three years instead of two? These are questions for action houses, not courtrooms. Judge Rapp defended the payment by saying the system wants defendants to compensate their victims. True enough, but the restitution was set at $5,000 and was meant to cover only the family’s out of pocket expenses. Every dollar above that amount takes on an unseemly appearance. In McLennand’s case, the concept of restitution is itself flawed. Reimburing crime victims for property or income loss is one thing. But what amount of money constitutes restitution for the loss of a human life? The family still intends to pursue a suit in civil court, which is the right place to seek monetary settlements. Idealistic as it sounds, people with financial means should receive treatment from the judicial system that is no different than that of society’s poorest member. While the courts should consider defendants remorse and encourage victims’ compensation, judges cannot deviate so far from the appropriate plea bargains that quid pro quo issues involving money arise. Justice can’t come with a price tag.