A thoughtless second ends & ruins lives, again
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org April 16, 2012 7:28PM
Updated: July 5, 2012 2:09PM
Since taking over the police beat here, I’ve sat through three homicide trials. And in each one, the scary lesson I’ve taken away is that a few seconds of thoughtless impulse can leave one person dead and another’s life ruined.
In one case, a Streamwood mother in her 30s, with no criminal record, had been driving over to “have it out” with a teenager who had punched her son in the face. When she happened to notice the boy standing near his Elgin apartment building, some kind of rage came over her. She gunned the accelerator, shifted the steering wheel a few degrees and crushed the boy to death between her car and the wall. That woman, Timera Branch, is now serving 35 years in Dwight prison.
In another case, an Elgin teenager was eager to impress the local commander of the gang he had just joined. That boss (a truly evil, loathsome human being, judging by his own cold-blooded testimony) handed the youngster a pistol and ordered him to shoot at a car they were chasing along the city’s Raymond Street. If you don’t shoot, the boss said in gang-speak, you will be beaten. The boy finally squeezed the trigger for one quick shot. The bullet hit not the rival gang-bangers they thought were in the other car but a young woman visiting from out of town, killing her instantly. Judged guilty of first-degree murder, Tony Rosalez is to be sentenced Wednesday.
And last week, soft-spoken, 58-year-old former Buddhist monk Donald Rattanavong went on trial for pulling a small pistol out of his pocket as he stood at his front door along a quiet Elgin street and firing three warning shots to scare away a group of teens he thought were about to burglarize his cars. He testified that he fired toward a dark area, away from where he saw any of the boys. But 18-year-old Guillermo Pineda was out there in the darkness, and one bullet went almost all the way through his head.
After seven hours’ debate, the jury found Rattanavong innocent of involuntary manslaughter but guilty of reckless discharge of a firearm. He is to be sentenced in May to as much as three years in prison.
He, too, has no past criminal record. Throughout the trial, he sat listening to a U.N.-style simultaneous translator with an impassive, emotionless look on his face. But that night, when he confronted those apparent car burglars, some kind of rage must have boiled up inside that made it feel worthwhile to shoot that gun. The emotion clouded his judgment so much that rather than just shooting harmlessly into the grass, he fired pretty much straight and level about 5 feet above the ground. We know that because of the path the bullet took as it tore apart young Pineda’s brain.
If the fatal bullet had not hit Pineda, it might have continued across the street, entered the home of one of Rattanavong’s neighbors and maybe killed a month-old baby. Whether you believe that those warning shots constituted “involuntary manslaughter” or not, it would be hard to dispute that this was a “reckless discharge of a firearm.” The jury got the verdict right.
The moral in all three cases? THINK THINK THINK before you FEEL FEEL FEEL. And it’s hard to avoid concluding that if guns had not been right at hand in two of those cases, a sudden burst of emotion would not have been so easily translated into “one life gone and another life ruined.”
By coincidence, the Rattanavong case went on trial the same week that charges were announced in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. And, as in the Florida case, the never-mentioned but surely always-in-mind elephant in the Cook County courtroom was race. The homeowner/defendant had emigrated from Laos 32 years ago. He is relatively fluent in English, according to neighbors I spoke with right after the shooting last summer (all of whom, by the way, gave him high marks as a nice guy and helpful neighbor). But in court, he insisted on having that simultaneous translator speak every word into his ear in Laotian.
The jurors — nine out of 12 of them male and 10 of them white Anglos, plus one black and one Hispanic — could relate to Rattanavong as a middle-class family man protecting himself against crime, even if he did have a yellow face. The real race issue came written on the faces of the four boys. Two (including Pineda) were Hispanic, and two were black. Pineda’s mother testified in Spanish, with one interpreter turning her words into English that Rattanavong’s interpreter then retranslated into Laotian.
One of the black youths, Alex Ervin, admitted that he and Pineda earlier had been stealing stuff from unlocked cars. Ervin claimed they had stopped doing that by the time Rattanavong came out and fired his warning shots. But it was apparent from the testimony of the youths that if Rattanavong really did see one boy looking into the window of his parked BMW, that intruder was Ervin, which means the face he saw on that intruder was black. Would Rattanavong have been as alarmed, and become so mad so quickly, if the teen he had noticed in his driveway had a white Anglo face?
There is one more lesson to take home from this tragedy: The boys said that as they were stealing stuff from parked cars, they simply ignored any car that was locked. Of all the most common crimes that plague Fox Valley towns, this is probably the easiest one to avoid: JUST LOCK YOUR CAR. Get into that habit. Don’t even think about it.