Should a million dollars have an impact on criminal justice? In the abstract, most of us would say no. Does a million dollars have an impact on criminal justice? In the real world, at least on the edges, people who know the system will shrug and say probably.
Consider what happened on Kiely Boulevard in Santa Clara about 10:30 p.m. on March 20, 2011. Two drivers pulled up to a stop light at Benton Street. One of them, Vincent Mergonoto, then 19, was driving a black Mercedes-Benz CLS 63. His friend, Chandra Dicky Purnama, then 21, was driving a rented yellow Corvette.
When the light turned green, they took off racing north on Kiely, reaching speeds that prosecutors say reached more than 80 mph.
Near Kiely and Butte Street, Mergonoto's Mercedes struck a Honda driven by Ashley Krieger, 23, who was just getting off her shift at Moonlight Lanes. Krieger suffered severe head injuries and a torn aorta. Seven days later, she died at Stanford Medical Center. No drugs or alcohol were involved in the crash.
Mergonoto and Purnama, affluent Indonesians who had studied at DeAnza College, were charged with vehicular manslaughter. In addition, Ashley's parents, Lance and Lori Krieger, brought a civil lawsuit against the two men.
Last week, the two men were given 364 days in jail each by Superior Court Judge Rene Navarro. "Given the circumstances ... with the loss of life, (they) deserve time in custody,'' Navarro said. With a discount for good behavior, the two students should be released in six months.
What makes this tragic tale more intriguing is the back story. The prosecutor, Deputy DA Mike Amaral, had urged the judge to consider prison time. Amaral says a turning point in the ultimate decision was a letter from Ashley's parents asking for leniency.
Saying that they grieved for their only child "every day and every night," the Kriegers nevertheless asked for probation and community service for Mergonoto rather than putting him behind bars. "Vincent and his entire family expressed their sincerest apologies," the Krieger letter said.
That letter, dated Feb. 22, was written as the Kriegers were close to settling the civil lawsuit with Mergonoto's family, which runs a profitable coffee business in Indonesia.
The court records show that the two sides formally agreed to a deal on March 8, 2012. The Mergonotos paid $1 million to settle. Several months later, Chandra Purnama's family agreed to pay another $150,000.
A cynical reading is that the money bought off the Kriegers, who declined through their attorney to talk. Yet you have to sympathize with their loss and admire their will to forgive. A million is hardly what it was.
"In talking with the Kriegers and defense attorneys, I think there was more to it than financial considerations," said prosecutor Amaral. "They told me it was an extremely emotional experience."
But did the money play some role? Amaral says the likelihood is yes. Would two poor kids from East San Jose have gotten the same break? I doubt it.