Where’s justice: News that driver would not be charged was hard to take

Saturday, July 14, 2018 4:43 AM
Durango Herald file

La Plata County Courthouse.

The recent news that Bobby Lehmann would not be charged was hard to take.

Lehmann is the 77-year-old driver who jumped a curb on North Main Avenue last year and killed two pedestrians, Allen Duke, a 22-year-old Fort Lewis College student, and Marco Ricchi, a 46-year-old visitor from Italy.

“If it was my child,” said one of our coworkers, “I know I’d want justice.”

But what if there is no justice to be had?

Lehmann, who lives in Texas and has a vacation home in Hermosa, had a drink or two the day of the accident, but his blood-alcohol content was far too low to charge him with drunk driving.

Medical experts said his diabetes did not cause the crash.

His attorney said Lehmann suffered from an undiagnosed heart condition that caused him to suddenly pass out while he was driving.

The condition has been surgically corrected.

Lehmann was charged, however, with two counts of careless driving resulting in death. Ultimately, that couldn’t be sustained, said La Plata County Deputy District Attorney Brendan Richards at a hearing last week. There wasn’t sufficient proof of carelessness.

“We don’t think we can beat this defense with the facts we have,” Richards said.

When things go wrong, very badly wrong, it’s hard to accept such a passive construction. We think there has to be an actor short of a deity – someone who can be tried. Surely someone made the things go badly wrong. Surely someone made a choice.

But there’s no actionable evidence of that here.

So then what?

Our best selves want justice because we think it will be restorative, that it will set right what was tilted the day that Duke and Ricchi were struck down out of the blue – and if there were grounds to charge Lehmann, then his trial, his conviction or his punishment might have done that.

But we have to defer to the judgment of Richards, the prosecutor, assuming that he, too, would want those things – if there were a reason to charge or try Lehmann.

Sometimes we say we want justice when what we want is merely retribution – “I have been hurt so I want to see someone else hurt in turn.” These are not our best selves. It’s a good time to recall Blackstone’s maxim, that it’s better for the rule of law that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffers.

Is Lehmann getting away with something? If he’s a bad person, a wanton, reckless, or callous one, he’s probably already paying a price for that in his golden years, which is another kind of justice.

It’s still hard to accept that Lehmann might not have been at fault that day, even though he was driving the car. For one thing, it seems to render meaningless the deaths of Duke and Ricchi.

Yet it’s their lives that were meaningful. The only meaning we can find in death, natural or freakish, is the universal one, that one way or another it comes to us all.

We punish malefactors to make ourselves safer and to deter others.

There doesn’t seem to be anything else that can be done to make us safer from Lehmann, and we don’t know what there is to try to deter here other than undiagnosed heart conditions.

Sadly, accidents do happen.