In their names: The path to justice
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 8, 2012 1:50 AM
He knew he had a busy day behind the bench ahead of him -- that he wouldn't have much time to spend outside of his robe.
But Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones knew how important this particular meeting was.
So he asked members of two Wayne County families to join him in a courtroom he had reserved just for them.
The news he was about to deliver warranted an intimate celebration.
"I found out ... that there is a bill that has not just been brought up, it's been ratified by the legislators. It's sitting on the governor's desk," he said. "It would raise the punishment (for deaths caused by driving while impaired) just like we wanted."
The judge paused and looked over at Kristie Jernigan Lee's sister, husband and parents.
"It won't help your daughter or your sister or your wife," he said. "But it could help someone else's."
The woman's sister, Kimberly Smith, smiled.
"We just want to thank you," she said.
But the mood was far different during Jones' first experience with that family in the Wayne County Courthouse.
Jones was charged with sentencing Hermelindo Castro, the man deemed responsible for the 37-year-old's death.
"Under the sentencing chart, the maximum penalty I could give him was 44 months in prison," the judge said. "What hit me about that is here is somebody who tragically dies. It affects her husband, her children, her church and her community, and all this guy can get is 44 months in prison? That didn't seem quite fair to me."
So he asked the family to join him in his chambers.
"It seemed like an unfair punishment. It didn't fit the crime at all. I mean, (Castro) had been drinking all day. It's not like he went and had a beer and got behind the wheel of a car," Kimberly said. "In my mind, it was very willful. It was very intentional.
"So Judge Jones, he kind of wanted to know how we felt about it, and we told him, of course, how unfair we thought it was. He asked, 'Do you want to do something about it?' We told him, 'Absolutely.'"
It didn't take long for Jones to set the family up with local Reps. Efton Sager and David Rouzer.
And he rallied support from District Attorney Branny Vickory and Sheriff Carey Winders.
"We talked to them about our concerns, and at that time, they kind of pledged their support to helping us in whatever way they could," Kimberly said. "They said they would help us."
But before they traveled to Raleigh, another grieving family would join the fray.
Allen Floars couldn't make the trip, but sent his wife, Catherine, in his stead.
They felt strongly that their son, Jacob, be represented -- given the fact that Mark Aaron Pope had received what they considered an "insulting" sentence for getting behind the wheel intoxicated and causing a crash that cost the 17-year-old his life.
"The district attorney, he said, 'Would you like to know how much time he can get?' I said, 'Yeah,' so he opened up his book," Allen said. "It said, '10 to 15.' Well I said, 'If he can get 10 to 15 years for each person, that might be all right.' He shook his head and looked at me. He said,
'Allen, it's not 10 to 15 years. It's 10 to 15 months.'
"That's hard for a family person to live with. Something had to be done."
Less than a year later, Senate Bill 105 has been ratified.
Now, it needs only the signature of Gov. Bev Perdue to "at least double" the maximum sentence men like Jones can hand down in cases involving felony death by motor vehicle.
"It's up to the governor, but I hope we can get this thing done. It's the right thing to do," Jones said. "It will at least double the punishment and I think that's significant. That's a lot more time.
"I want people to think about what they do before they put themselves in these situations, and hopefully, if they know the punishment is more strict, they'll think twice."
Allen knows that no matter what happens inside the Governor's Mansion, it won't bring Jacob back home.
But knowing that men like Jones care softens the blow that reality delivers to the Floars home every day.
"It hasn't been easy to come to these courtrooms and talk about the loss.
You have to relive all the stuff and it's taken a lot," he said. "So I'm happy about what's going on. You know, when people don't think there's any consequences, it just causes them to keep on going out there and doing the same thing."