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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Josh Brent and Jovan Belcher: NFL Players, Their Crimes, The Media and The Law

    The number of people killed by intoxicated drivers has been on the decline for a decade. Since the FBI doesn't keep track of this kind of killing specifically, we don't know how many drunk drivers are convicted of homicide. Every year, 16,000 people are killed in alcohol and drug related traffic accidents, but a certain percentage of those killed are the drivers themselves.

     Under state law, an intoxicated driver who causes a fatal traffic accident is guilty of an unintentional criminal homicide called, depending on the jurisdiction, involuntary manslaughter, vehicular homicide, or vehicular manslaughter. Defendants convicted of this lesser degree of homicide usually receive sentences that range from five to fifteen years in prison. The severity of punishment in these cases depends upon the driver's DUI history, the degree of intoxication, and the recklessness of the driving. Over the years, however, judges have become increasingly less lenient in vehicular homicide convictions.

     Every year, the police in the United States make about 1.5 million DUI arrests, and unless they pull over someone like Lindsay Lohan, these events are not newsworthy. The same is true for the vast majority of vehicular homicide cases which receive minor coverage in the local press and on television news. However, when a drunk driving fatality involves several children, an entire family, or a car full of teenagers, the media pays more attention, but they are still local news events.

     In the early morning hours of December 8, 2012, near the southern California town of Victorville, a man named Ilich Ernesto Vargas, while driving the wrong way on I-15, crashed head-on into another vehicle. The 28-year-old driver of the other car, David Ahmed of Fort Irwin, received minor injuries. But the accident took the life of Vargas' passenger, 50-year-old Kellie Sue Hughes. The California Highway Patrol officer who took the drug-crazed Vargas into custody at the scene, had to employ his taser. Vargas had broken a leg in the crash.

     The fatal traffic accident on I-15 that has all the signs of a vehicular homicide case, generated two paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times, and mention the next day on local television news. To date there has been no follow-up on this story by the Los Angeles media.

     On the morning Ilich Vargas crashed his car and killed his passenger in southern California, Josh Brent flipped his Mercedes and killed his passenger in Dallas, Texas. While the police in both fatal traffic accidents suspected that the drivers were intoxicated, and therefore potential vehicular homicide defendants, the crash in Dallas has attracted the attention of the national media. The Dallas case is big news because the driver, Josh Brent, plays football for the Dallas Cowboys. The fact that his 25-year-old passenger, Jerry Brown, was a teammate, makes the story even more media significant, particularly in the wake of the recent murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher, an NFL player for the Kansas City Chiefs.

     As a potential vehicular homicide case, there is nothing in the Brent accident that sets it apart from all the other fatalities beyond the identities of the driver and his dead passenger. From the standpoint of the victims' families in these cases, all of these accidents are tragic. And to varying degrees, these fatalities ruin the lives of the intoxicated drivers. But this isn't enough by itself to make these events newsworthy. In the Josh Brent case, the added ingredient is sports. It's really a sports story.

     It should come as no surprise that in a country where a single NFL football game generates three times more media attention than the typical crime, weather, political, war, or business related story, that Josh Brent's status as a professional football player has made his situation so important. Print journalists and cable TV correspondents, as well as sports broadcasters and pundits, have gone on and on about the effect of the tragedy on the other players, and of course, the team. There have also been media discussions about how to combat substance abuse among our professional athletes.

     Correspondents and reporters in the news and sports media are using the Josh Brent case and the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide as a jumping off point for long, detailed essays on the possible effects of head trauma in the NFL. Has the sport of football become too violent? (Most fans would say yes, that's exactly how we like it.) Is football responsible for player depression, off-the-field domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and murder? If it is, what can we do about it?

     In American culture, professional athletes are special people, and as such, are treated differently than ordinary citizens. Their problems are our problems, indeed, our responsibility. Prior to the intense media coverage of their tragedies, you probably never heard of Josh Brent, Jerry Brown, or Jovan Belcher. Had these men not been professional football players, you still wouldn't know their names.

     While we are, in theory at least, all equal under the law, we are not equal under the glare of the media. This may not be a good thing for Josh Brent. The magistrate in his case set his bail at $500,000, ten times higher than what is normal in cases like this. If Josh Brent is convicted of vehicular homicide (I image he will plead guilty), the judge might take advantage of his celebrity to make an example out of him. It that happens, we are not equal under the law either.   

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