When Felix Ortega crashed into Tad and Leigh Anna’s car and killed them, he and the police officer who was pursuing him in a high speed chase took my life, too.
I never believed Ortega committed murder, though. There was no intention to kill them. He didn’t go after them. He killed them. That was enough. That was bad enough. Yet, the prosecutors charged him with two counts of murder. I thought vehicular homicide would have been an accurate charge. Or manslaughter.
Because he was undocumented and, I suppose, because it was a high profile case involving appealing teenage sweethearts, there were those in Huntsville who wanted to drag him from the jail and murder him in return.
I don’t know much about the law in Alabama, but I do know this is a death penalty state. We have the highest per capital death penalty rate in the US, outranking even Texas. And, until this year, a judge could impose a death penalty when a jury suggested life imprisonment in its verdict.
As it happened, in a plea bargain Ortega exchanged a jury trial for a bench decision. He received 15 years which I thought was sufficient.
What I would have liked to see was less emphasis on inflating the language, the charges, and the responses and more emphasis on the high-speed police chase which contributed in no small way to Tad’s and Leigh Anna’s deaths and the interruption of Ortega’s life.
But few were interested in that. An in-house investigation, during which the officer said the magic words, “I backed off”, culminated in his receiving not so much as a reprimand if what I’ve been told is accurate.
It doesn’t matter to me that at the last second he “backed off” when he had spent many minutes pursuing Ortega who had been headed out of town. Being pursued, Ortega made the fateful decision to try to elude the officer and, instead of heading out of town, made a left turn onto one of the busiest arteries in Huntsville and toward the highly congested intersection where the light had just turned red.
During sentencing, the District Attorney, as has become customary walked us and Tad’s family into the courtroom as a unit in a visual announcement to the judge that what we had undergone was a worthy of the maximum sentence. Ortega was there in shackles. But the officer was nowhere to be seen.
After sentencing Ortega apologized to the families. Privately, he apologized to Leigh Anna’s father and me. He expressed profound remorse.
We never heard a word from the police officer or the police department. Not the night of the accident, not any time since.
Inflated language, inflated charges, inflated responses. There seems to be a sense that inflation somehow says what happened was horrific. Or somehow that we care.
But they seem to carry with them their inverse—no language, no charge, no response at all.