MAXWELL:  Do we really know what we would do?  

5/2/2004 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out.

_ Baron Thomas Babington Macauley, English historian and statesman

This column is about our all-too-human, unexamined rush to judge other people for their deeds and misdeeds.

A few nights ago, I telephoned my sister, Helen, in Palmetto to talk about Jennifer Porter, the 28-year-old elementary school dance teacher charged in connection with the hit-and-run deaths of two Tampa siblings and the injuring of two others. We also talked about Lisa Wilkins, the four children’s mother.

I wanted to hear Helen’s opinions because our family lost a loved one in a hit-and-run accident. We had to cope with the conflicting emotions of judging the killer’s actions, forgiving and moving on with our lives. I wanted to talk with Helen also because, like Porter, she is a public school teacher, a veteran of more than 20 years.

In 1963, our 9-year-old sister, Ernestine, was killed when a car ran over her while she stood on the easement of a busy street in Fort Lauderdale. After striking Ernestine, the car sped away and disappeared into the morning fog.

Two weeks later, the police found our sister’s killer. He was a scared, remorseful black man whom we knew well. We attended school with his relatives, and we often shopped at the convenience store he owned. He was convicted (I do not recall the exact crime) and served about two years in prison. After his release, he rejoined the community, and we regularly saw him. To this day, I chat with the man if I bump into him when I visit Fort Lauderdale.

Porter has been charged with one felony count of leaving the scene of a fatal crash, and she faces a sentence of 22 months to 15 years in prison. She was arrested on the morning of April 28 _ nearly a month after the accident _ and was released shortly afterward on $7,500 bail.

Given the racial ingredients of this case _ Porter and her big-time attorney are white, and the victims are black _ the Tampa Bay region faces a potential crisis that could descend into violence if matters are not handled firmly and deftly.

African-Americans, along with a handful of whites, already are lining up to charge racism and a double standard in the treatment of Porter. Some blacks have publicly referred to Porter as a “murderer.” And even while the legal process is proceeding as it should, the Uhurus are planning to demonstrate outside the State Attorney’s office in Tampa.

My sister said that, as a teacher, she would not have driven away if she had hit the children. She did not understand how Porter, a teacher of the young, could have fled and not turn herself in to the police.

“I would’ve stopped and gone back to help,” Helen said, unequivocally. “I’m a teacher. I remember Ernestine. I know I would’ve stopped.”

The truth is that I do not know what I would have done. I have never experienced such a traumatic encounter, and I have never had my conscience and ethical will tested to such a degree. Deep down, I want to believe that I would have stopped my car, gotten out, walked back to the scene and helped investigators. But I have no way of knowing exactly what I would have done.

As to Porter, these are my thoughts, and I am not excusing her actions: Here was a young woman reared by adoring parents in relative economic comfort. Hers was a somewhat charmed existence devoid of major upset, violent encounters and serious crime. For her, truly bad things happened on television or in the movies. She was a well-liked and respected dance instructor, and, by all appearances, she had a safe, predictable life as an adult.

At about 7:10 p.m., on March 31, as she drove the familiar route home, Porter’s rosy world became a nightmare when the body of a child struck her car.

Kurt Doiron, the boyfriend of Porter’s sister, spoke with Porter by telephone when she called home soon after the accident. He reportedly told investigators that Porter was “absolutely hysterical and absolutely beside herself.” According to the St. Petersburg Times, Doiron’s attorney Tracy Sheehan described Porter’s comments to Doiron this way: “She said that a body flew at the windshield and that it was “bam!’, that it just happened. And she kept repeating that. “Bam!’ The body was there.”

A body flew at the windshield. I have no doubt that Porter panicked, and she did not know what to do. All of the proper thoughts and modes of behavior she had taken for granted disappeared. And although most people would stop when they are in an accident, even fatal ones, Porter apparently succumbed to the instinct to flee. I have no way of knowing what was going through her mind, but I am certain that raw fear and surprise prevented her from doing the right thing.

Fear and surprise. What would I have done? My sister is certain about her reactions if she had been in Porter’s situation. I cannot speak with similar certainty. And I believe that most of Porter’s detractors do not know what they would have done, either. Yet, they sit in smug judgment of this young woman.

I suspect that too few of us examine our own lives and motivations before we harshly judge other people. Because I lost a 9-year-old sister to a scared, genuinely remorseful hit-and-run driver, I am reserving judgment of Jennifer Porter, who has expressed what appears to be sincere remorse.