One of the sagest pieces of advice that I ever received during the time that I was a prosecutor was from Judge Caprice Cosper, whom I consider to be the best Judge I ever had the honor to practice in front of.
The case was a mildly high profile case where two working parents had left their five year old child in charge of their three year old child for an hour while their work shifts overlapped. During the space of one tragic hour, the five year old daughter had played with a lighter and inadvertently set the family home on fire. The five-year-old had escaped the flames.
The three-year-old had not.
I had been working the intake desk when the call came in. As a new father, I was incensed, and (now, in retrospect) very reactionary. I filed the case as a first degree Injury to a Child that had resulted in death against both parents. A Grand Jury downgraded those charges to the State Jail Felony of Endangering a Child.
Both parents pled guilty to a PSI (Pre-Sentence Investigation) hearing before Judge Cosper (which is the equivalent of throwing yourself on the Mercy of the Court).
In my time as a prosecutor, I looked at countless crime scene photographs and attended many autopsies. Thankfully, very few of those memories stick in my mind.
Sadly, the photographs of the aftermath of that fire have never been able to leave my mind. I think the effect of being a father to a small child has enhanced that.
I argued to Judge Cosper that the parents both deserved the maximum sentence of two years in a State Jail Facility. She disagreed and gave them probation, and she then told me, very kindly, the following words that guided me as a prosecutor in the short time I had remaining as a prosecutor.
"Mr. Newman," she said, "in this job there are those people we deal with that we are mad at and those that we are afraid of. You need to learn the difference."
And she was right. I did.
As a parent, I was upset, and, quite frankly, outraged at the results of what happened to a defenseless three-year-old due to her parents' horrible mistake in judgment.
But they weren't threats to Society. That was a fact that escaped me at the time.
A few months earlier, I had seen the crime scene video of the home of Andrea Yates. I wish to God that I never had. To this day, I can be giving my son a bath and an image of Noah Yates will flash through my mind. The sickening feeling is something that I don't think I can really translate to you, unless you've seen the video. Just suffice it to say that it is heartbreaking.
I was all for prosecuting Andrea Yates to the fullest extent of the law. All the way to the ultimate penalty.
Why? Because I was angry about what she had done.
There wasn't a single thing about her that indicated she would be a future threat to society.
Today, the District Attorney's Office filed the charges of Injury to a Child with reckless intent causing serious bodily injury against Jessica Tata for the deaths of four children under her care when a fire broke out at a daycare she was responsible for. I don't know any more about the case than anyone else who has followed it in the media.
As a parent, I applaud the decision, because I am furious with Jessica Tata for her role in the deaths of tiny little children who had no ability to save themselves from fire -- just like I feel fury against every person charged with hurting any child.
But, I'm not scared of her.
The Defendants that we are scared of are so much easier to deal with, aren't they?