for the death of 15 year old Kayla...so much for the value
of LIFE! Goihman deserved to rot in a jail cell!
As I see it
By John Scanlon
Man vs. dog: Punitive parity, please
Buster the dog didn't deserve to be set on fire for nipping a 12-year-old kid in the Mayfair family that owned him. But then Kayla Peter the human didn't deserve to be annihilated by Susanna Goihman, the boozed-up restaurant owner in the shiny Lexus who ran her down six years ago, left the 15-year-old kid for dead on an East Falls street, then played games for a couple months with cops who wanted to interrogate her.
John Fleet III was sentenced a week and a half ago to a prison term of two to seven years for trying to kill his dog. That's pretty comparable to the three-to-six that Goihman plea-bargained for killing Peter - an outcome even sweeter for Goihman considering that she did three years, nine months, and was freed from prison just last year to enjoy parole and a new life in Florida.
These vastly different scenarios emphasize one reality. Either it is indeed a dog's life, or a human's life is getting shockingly cheap. And you'd have to believe that Kayla Peter had a lot more potential in her life than this yappy little pit bull did in his.
Animal activists, as you'd expect, have been freaking out about the dog's injuries and Fleet's barbarity. Granted, he has no excuse for making a hot dog - that goes without saying - but the harsh sentence makes one thing apparent. He'd be in less of a pickle if he'd run somebody down and just kept driving.
That's because Pennsylvania's hit-and-run statute is so atrocious. Many states' are. Atrociously non-punitive, atrociously inconsistent, and atrociously rooted in some flawed thinking that running someone over - even if you're smashed - and hitting the accelerator to avoid prosecution isn't as egregious as shooting someone in the head and fleeing down the street to avoid the same thing.
Here in Pennsylvania, as established by the motor-vehicle code, if you're convicted of vehicular homicide while intoxicated, the mandatory sentence is just three to six years in state prison. If you're accused simply of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, the minimum sentence is a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The laws, ironically and sadly, help make a very persuasive case for leaving your victim on the street and just getting the hell out of there. As the ensuing days go by, the police investigation is increasingly hampered. DUI pretty much becomes impossible to prove. Which leaves the token charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, a third-degree felony with broad sentencing guidelines that likely won't ever fulfill a surviving family's sense of justice.
So killing someone becomes one of those temporary inconveniences in life. Hey, it beats a murder charge and decades in a cell.
It's about time for state lawmakers to show unity and remedy this.
Susanna Goihman's case is notable for her stone-cold indifference, along with the fact that the case registers a "10" on the travesty scale, but it by no means is an isolated case.
Here in the Northeast, driver Michelle Johnson - a nurse, of all things - was in such a hurry to get to work at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Holmesburg that she blew through a red light on Rhawn Street and struck 15-year-old Marylee Otto on the evening of March 28, 2008. Johnson stopped . . . looked back . . . and drove to work. She went to work the next day, too. Marylee died in the hospital the night she was hit. A couple of tips soon led the cops to Johnson and her damaged SUV in the prison parking lot.
The seemingly unrepentant Johnson also had to endure one of those temporary inconveniences in life. The district attorney's office tinkered with charges of vehicular homicide or involuntary manslaughter, yet, in the end, Johnson signed the dotted line of a plea deal in October 2008.
Leaving the scene of a fatal accident. One to two years in prison, three years probation. Time does fly. Johnson has moved on with life, free for six months now. Marylee Otto's image is frozen in time on Facebook, the subject of mournful tribute pages created by streams of mournful friends.
And so it goes. Internet news sites abound with common stories of hit-and-run injustices, the killer sentenced to a year or two in prison, the victim's family typically sentenced to a life of deep sadness. It's not likely to change until people get as peeved as Diane Velikis.
The Luzerne, Pa., woman has led a determined awareness campaign and petition drive calling for law changes, an activism motivated by the shock and anguish of hearing a motorist sentenced to a year in jail for the hit-and-run death of her 45-year-old sister.
Yet even Velikis - who has assailed the "unjust travesty of punishment to the offender" in many of these cases - acknowledges that stoking legislative action may take some time.
The attention that has been directed to this whole issue has focused on a perceived loophole - specifically that a driver who stops to render aid to his victim, and is found to be drunk or high, faces a harsher sentence than the driver who flees and is apprehended at a later time.
It's sensible to get tougher with the driver who runs, but the shortcomings of Pennsylvania's law are more far-reaching than that. Sentencing guidelines demand an overhaul to more appropriately reflect the value of life and address the crimes or serious motor-vehicle infractions that become inherent parts of these tragic episodes.
There are a few lawmakers who have started to get the message. State Rep. Dave Reed, a Republican from Indiana County, and Rep. Phyllis Mundy, a Democrat from Kingston, have directed their attention to closing the code loophole - specifically, a more punitive sentence for a driver who flees and leaves the victim behind, ostensibly to avoid a DUI prosecution. Both lawmakers have introduced respective bills in an attempt to amend the law.
Closer to home, state Sen. Mike Stack (D-5th dist.) hosted a Senate Transportation Committee hearing at Nazareth Hospital a year ago - with testimony from prosecutors, police and victims' families - to better understand the depth of the issue. The session yielded several bills by Stack and other colleagues that sought to give more bite to existing laws and stiffen minimum sentences.
On the surface, all of these legislative initiatives deserve plaudits. Below it, however, is a concern that the lack of one cohesive bill - one that both parties will get behind with uncommon non-partisan zeal - will simply leave us with a collection of fragmented bills that crumble under the weight of politics and, ultimately, just fade away because of legislative inaction.
It comes down to this. Something's amiss when hurting a dog can get you a longer prison stint than running over a person. Maybe we should start using those cruelty laws.
John Scanlon is editor of the Northeast Times. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 215-354-3030.