Posted on November 12, 2004

Justice Elusive, Even With Conviction

Gordon Dillow, The Orange County Register, Nov. 7

Courtrooms are supposed to be quiet, dispassionate places. But in a tiny, crowded courtroom in Santa Ana last week, anger and passion and grief overflowed as the family and friends of a dead young girl demanded answers to these questions:

What is justice?

What is murder?

And why is it not considered a crime to be in this country illegally?

The setting for this almost unbearably sad and painful drama was the sentencing of a man named Francisco Ledesma, a 27-year-old landscape worker and father of two young children who came to the United States illegally from Michoacan, Mexico, several years ago. On Feb. 1 of this year, Ledesma, who was unlicensed, uninsured and driving with a blood-alcohol level of .21 percent — almost three times the legal limit — blew through a Santa Ana intersection in a van and hit a car with seven people in it, flipping it over several times.

Ledesma drove away without stopping and was caught a few blocks away. Meanwhile, at the intersection, 15-year- old Sara Morchy of Lake Forest lay dying, her young face battered, her chest crushed.

Because the laws concerning murder make it difficult to prove “intent to kill” in fatal drunken-driving cases — a necessary element in a murder case, and a subject I wrote about in a column last month — the most serious charges prosecutors could throw at Ledesma were gross vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run. In September he pleaded guilty, with the expectation he would be sentenced to 11 years in prison — although since he has no prior official criminal record, at least not in this country, he’d probably have to serve only half of that.

So far, the legal system’s emphasis had been almost entirely on protecting Ledesma’s rights; sadly, the victim, Sara, was largely irrelevant to the process. But on Friday morning, as her family and friends came to see Ledesma formally sentenced, Sara finally got her day in court.

In a courtroom filled with weeping, a succession of people who knew Sara stood up and told the judge what a fine young person she was, about her hopes and dreams, now never to be realized, and how her death had devastated them. They sobbed as they spoke and struggled to get through.

And underlying their sadness was anger. Sara’s mother, Karen Morchy, a woman with grief etched deeply in her eyes, stood at the lectern and demanded answers.

“How would he like to see his child autopsied?” she said. “How would he like to wonder if his child died in agony? How would he like to see his child put in a coffin and lowered into the dirt?”

Ledesma sat at the defendant’s table, dressed in an orange jail uniform, his head down, a Spanish interpreter whispering into his ear, never speaking or looking back at Sara’s family members.

It was finally too much for Karen Morchy. Holding up a photograph of her daughter, she called out to Ledesma, “Turn around and look at it! Look at what you did!” As her friends tried to calm her, and she sat down crying in a chair, she asked them, “I have to look at him. Why can’t he look at her?”

No one could give her an answer.

But the anger wasn’t all directed at the man with his head down at the defendant’s table. Again and again, Sara’s friends and family members asked how the legal system could refuse to call what he did a murder. And how could he be considered a first-time offender, and get a break on his sentence, when he had broken the law to come here in the first place?

“This was not a mishap, this was not a misfortune, this was not a mistake,” said Terri Bell, the mother of Sara’s friend Doshanna Bell, who was in the car with Sara but escaped injury. “This was murder.”

“He took reckless and negligent actions, he entered this country illegally, he fled like a coward from the scene as a 15-year-old girl was dying,” Sara’s aunt, Bonnie Kehe, told the judge. “Anything less than the maximum sentence would be a crime — and haven’t there been enough crimes already?”

“My confidence is nil in a system that allows 4,000 illegal aliens to cross into our country every day,” Karen Morchy also said during her presentation to the court. “Then I’m told that the murder of my child wasn’t a serious enough crime (to rate a harsher sentence) . . . that there’s a discount on murder.”

But in the end, the tears and the pleas and the anger could make no difference. Nor did the tears of Ledesma’s family members and friends, who were also weeping in the courtroom. As expected, the judge gave him 11 years, with credit for time served; he’ll most likely be released in about five years and be deported back to Mexico.

And Sara Morchy will still be dead.

Yes, the law is the law, and it must be followed.

But this time, and way too often, it doesn’t feel like justice.