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November 13, 2010

"An unusual sentence aims to make a killer remember his victim"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting and moving article from the St. Petersburg Times.  Here are excerpts:

The call came at 8 p.m.  A 19-year-old driving a Honda Civic had lost control and gone off the road.  He over-corrected, the state trooper said, and smashed into Thomas [Tower] Jr.'s car.  The impact ejected Thomas Jr., who fell into a field.

"By the time we got there, he was gone," [his father] said.  Thomas Jr. was 28.  The other driver, Andrew Gaudioso, was airlifted to a hospital where he spent four months in a coma.  "We waited," Towers said.  "But that kid was never charged."

Six months later, after Gaudioso was released from the hospital, Towers drove to the highway patrol station and demanded to see the wreck report. Gaudioso hadn't been drinking, the report said.  But a blood test showed drugs in his system.

In an interview, prosecutor Sara Jane Olson wouldn't say what the drugs were, but Towers said he was told one was marijuana.  "This kid got high and drove and killed my son," Towers said.  "My son, who protected our freedom and fought for our country, died a mile from my home."

In April 2009, officers charged Gaudioso with vehicular homicide.  His trial was supposed to start this month.  But his lawyer, Laura Hargrove, asked to have the case dismissed. "There was a huge problem with the way they calculated his speed," she said.

Prosecutor Olson could have asked for an 8-year prison sentence for Gaudioso, but that wasn't what Towers wanted.  "I didn't want him sitting there in the air-conditioning, watching TV on the taxpayers' dollars.  And I sure didn't want to risk him going free."

He wanted to hear Gaudioso say he was sorry for all the pain he had caused. "I want him to apologize to my family — every week," Towers remembers telling the assistant state attorney. "I want him to remember, for the rest of his life, that he killed my son."

Gaudioso did not respond to interview requests for this story, but his lawyer said he was happy with the plea agreement.  "He didn't want to go to prison."  The defense attorney proposed postcards instead.  One a week, for 15 years.  That's 780 postcards.

"The only way I could keep my client out of prison was to come up with something creative," Hargrove said.  "We didn't mandate what he had to say.  Only that he has to send the postcards."

On Oct. 14, Lake County Circuit Judge G. Richard Singeltary signed off on the unusual plea agreement. He sentenced Gaudioso, 22, to 15 years of drug offender probation, during which he can't drink or use drugs.  He also revoked his driver's license for five years and ordered him to pay $815 in fines.

And Gaudioso has to "mail a postcard to the victim's family via probation every week while on probation."  If Gaudioso doesn't send one, he will serve the rest of his 15 years behind bars.

Radio stations and wire services across the country carried news of the sentence. Internet users discussed it on blogs from "simplejustice" to "Harrypottering."  Everyone seemed surprised the victim's family would agree to let his killer go free.  To Towers, the best punishment is to make the killer pay penance. "I need to know that he cares that he killed my kid."

November 13, 2010 at 09:13 AM | Permalink


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"I need to know that he cares that he killed my kid."

Unfortunatley, the sentence doesn't do that. It requires the defendant to DO something, but that is different from caring. For all I know, the actual feeling is, or will soon get to be, resentment "that I have to write these stupid postcards that just say the say thing week after week, year after year. Don't I ever get to walk away from this?"

A sentence can do many things. Making a defendant actually feel remorse in his heart is not one of them. That is one of those things that will either happen, or not, depending on the pre-existing character of the defendant. If it did happen with this defendant, it's not the postcards that are doing it. Genuine remorse happened before the idea of postcards ever came up.

The other thing this story brings to mind is the line I frequently hear in legalization debates, that "marijuana never killed anyone." And it's true that no one (to my knowledge) has overdosed on pot. But make no mistake about it. Although there were obviously other contributory causes, marijuana killed Thomas Tower, Jr.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 13, 2010 9:51:20 AM

You're quite the detective Bill. The article notes that the defendant had more than one drug in his system. One of those drugs was pot. We don't know what other drugs he had. We don't know how much pot the guy did have in his system. We don't know how the accident occurred. We don't know if it was raining. We don't know if the driver was swerving to avoid an animal. We know almost nothing in fact. Nevertheless, you are willing to say that pot caused the accident. Yup. That's totally reasonable.

Posted by: anon | Nov 13, 2010 10:16:29 AM

anon --

The sole drug the article mentions is pot. Nor did I claim that pot was the only cause (you must have missed that). And what the article discloses is that he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter -- not too likely if it was just your guessed-at rainstorm that caused the wreck.

Still, if you want to tell us that we'll have improved road safety if people drive while pot is in their system, or that pot-impaired driving does not cause injuries and deaths, feel free, but I'd have to suspect then that you've been smoking something.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 13, 2010 10:53:06 AM

what a stupid sentence. So what if the guy goes and buys 780 postcards and then mails em all at once? Is he done...just like most people on probation once he pays all his probation fees?

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 13, 2010 12:38:26 PM

Is he sincere in his regret? How could one know that? Even a tearful demonstration of emotion can be faked, and he is likely crying about his bad luck of being in his situation.

Here are some novel arguments, for the defense, for the prosecution.

Defense. Most disaster result not from a chain of causation, but from a cluster of factors coming together in a place and time. Most of the disasters, the prevention of any one of the dozen factors results in no disaster at all. There is often no hierarchy of influence. I would list the dozen or more factors that went into this tragedy. Road design, car design of both cars, car conditions of both, weather forecasting, was Thomas wearing a seat belt, was Thomas intoxicated and inattentive for any reason. I would file cross claims against all factor contributors, and explain to the jury, the defendant and his intoxication were only a small part of the disaster. This is really an accident and not a crime. It may be negligence per se, at worst.

Prosecution. How does one know the careless, intoxicated killer is not more dangerous than the contract killer? We know that without payment, the contract killer will not hurt anyone, and that he is targeting only specific people. The intoxicated killer may kill any number of people, for no apparent reason than their presence in a space and time, and do so repeatedly. The missing element of intent does not reduce the dangerousness of the defendant, but markedly increases it. The investment in prison will save lives worth 1000's of times more than the cost of prison.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 13, 2010 10:26:32 PM

Bill what a load of crap " Marijuana killed Thomas Tower,JR" Marijuana could stay in ones system for 30 days or more, meaning the guy could have smoked some pot 3 weeks prior to the terrible tragedy and still be in his system when the accident occurred.

Another Anon

Posted by: Anon | Nov 13, 2010 10:48:42 PM

Bill cant control himself while innebriated, so he must deny it to everyone else.

Posted by: tbucket | Nov 15, 2010 2:14:44 AM

Bill's Moral Judgment is clearly superior to the rest of us. 19 year olds who lose control of their car should be locked up in prison forever and marijuana should be banned. You only receive leniency if you had a job in the Bush administration.

Posted by: jsmith | Nov 15, 2010 10:33:22 AM

tbucket --

"Bill cant control himself while innebriated, so he must deny it to everyone else."

It's all true. I can't (with an apostrophe) control myself while inebriated (only one "n"). However, I'm TOTALLY out of control when innnebriated, and blasted to smithereens when innnnebriated.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 16, 2010 2:36:35 AM

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