Last week in Texas, a place where justice has a history of being hijacked — where judges and juries have been known to err on the wrong side for the wrong reasons — two courts did the right thing in two very difficult and high-profile cases.
In courtrooms 30 miles apart (one in Fort Worth; one in Dallas), decisions came down last Friday that allowed one man to avoid a long prison sentence and one pregnant woman free to officially die.
One of the decisions was in the hands of a jury, the other left to a judge.
In the Dallas courtroom, where former Dallas Cowboys player Josh Brent had been convicted of intoxication manslaughter in the death of his teammate and friend Jerry Brown, jurors decided to sentence him to 10 years probation and a $10,000 fine. He could have been given as much as 20 years in prison.
Brent, who turns 26 Thursday, was ordered by state District Judge Robert Burns to 180 days in jail.
A year ago, shortly after the one-car accident that killed Brown, I argued that although Brent had been driving drunk at a high speed, he should not go to prison. Having to live with the fact that he was responsible for his best friend’s death would be punishment enough.
Actually, prosecutors should have worked out a plea bargain with Brent and avoided a trial, considering Brown’s mother and family also did not want to see him punished. But Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, who is up for re-election this year, obviously felt he could benefit from a headline-grabbing case and made it a point to appear several times in the courtroom during the trial.
Sheila Jackson, Brown’s mother, testified during the punishment phase of the trial, and her testimony no doubt had some impact on the jury, which included 10 women.
Some people say probation is harder to do than time, and if it’s ever revoked Brent will have to do the full 10-year sentence.
In the meantime, he should be allowed to get on with his life, under supervision, and that includes returning to football if a team is willing to take a chance on him.
Across the river in Fort Worth, in a case that drew international attention, Judge R. H. Wallace Jr. did the bold, courageous and right thing by ordering that life support be withdrawn from 33-year-old Marlise Muñoz, who had been in John Peter Smith Hospital since Nov.14.
Muñoz was 14 weeks pregnant when she was stricken by an embolism, and although doctors said she was brain-dead, hospital officials decided to keep her on life support against her and her family’s wishes. The JPS decision was based on a 1999 Texas law requiring that life-sustaining measures be applied to pregnant patients to support the unborn child.
The judge agreed with attorneys for Muñoz’s husband, Erick, that the law didn’t apply in this case because the woman was brain-dead. Therefore, she was no longer a patient.
Medical records released earlier showed that at 22 weeks the fetus had not developed normally, was suffering from hydrocephalus (excessive fluid on the the brain) and was quite deformed, to the point that the sex could not be determined.
The hospital was given until 5 p.m. Monday to comply with the court order. It made the decision to do so Sunday morning.
For two months, Erick Muñoz and his family have endured pure agony as a misapplied law kept his dead wife in a hospital bed rather than allowing her the dignity she would have wanted and the closure this family needed.
Sadly, in a televised debate of Republican candidates for lieutenant governor Monday night, all four candidates said the judge was wrong and that the law ought to be fixed so this doesn’t happen again.
No, candidates. The state should get out of hospital rooms and stop interfering with decisions that rightly belong to patients, their doctors and their families.