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Two-tiered justice system protested at Thurston County Courthouse

What does a 100 mph police chase in a Ferrari through downtown Olympia with a terrified passenger begging to be let out of the vehicle, hitting a house and two parked cars, and a seventh DUI with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit get you?

If you’re Shaun Goodman, a local business owner, it gets you a year of work release.

On May 16, about twenty-five people met by Capitol Lake and marched to the Thurston County Courthouse to protest Judge Christine Schaller’s decision to accept the one year work release plea bargain agreed to by Goodman’s attorney, Paul Strophy, and Thurston Deputy Prosecuting Attorney James Power. Carrying signs that read “Driving under the affluenza” and “Convicted of driving while wealthy and white = 1 year work release”, protestors questioned the impartiality of Thurston courts when it comes to class and race.

Strophy and Powers recommended work release so Goodman could maintain employment and run his business while he serves his sentence. Goodman is the owner of Vantage Communications, a cable installation company with six employees and an estimated revenue of $800,000 per year. His work release agreement allows him to be at work from 8 am-8 pm, Monday through Saturday. At this time, it is uncertain whether he will serve evenings and Sundays in jail, or at his home.

“It’s not fair that there’s a two-tiered legal system, one for those with money and another for those without,” Sam Miller, the event’s organizer, told The Olympian. Some protestors at the May 16 march compared Goodman’s sentence to those of friends and relatives who received more jail time or were denied work release for smaller infractions. Henri Griffen, the passenger who eventually threw himself out of the moving vehicle to escape Goodman’s reckless driving, noted that “There are people who are less fortunate that get the shaft more, you know what I mean?”

When Goodman was first arraigned in late December, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Wheeler called Goodman’s behavior “atrocious” and Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon compared his alleged actions to “walking downtown with a loaded gun firing rounds.”

A six-time DUI offender who had literally graduated from Thurston’s DUI court earlier in the same year, Goodman was originally held on suspicion of false imprisonment, felony eluding and felony driving under the influence of alcohol.

Although protestors questioned why the prosecutor didn’t add more charges, such as reckless driving, by the time of his May 9 court date, Goodman faced even fewer charges. He pled guilty to two: felony eluding a police officer and driving under the influence of alcohol.

Washington State’s DUI sentencing guidelines call for a DUI defendant with “two or three” prior DUIs to be sentenced to a minimum of 120 days in jail, and a maximum of 364. So when local resident Jim Gerner spoke to James Power by telephone, Mr. Power was technically correct in telling him that he had pursued the “maximum possible sentence for DUI.” But if the maximum sentence for DUI was 364 days, what did Goodman get for felony eluding a police officer? And how much time, fines, and restitution would have been ordered for the charges he never faced, such as reckless driving or false imprisonment?

In addition to minimal charges, no victim’s statement was ordered, even though Goodman’s passenger was forced to throw himself from the moving vehicle in order to escape. Henri Griffen, the passenger, told 911 dispatchers that he had begged with Goodman to let him out, telling him, “I’m a father.” He told the dispatcher, “I’m calling you guys because I’m scared.” Griffen said he visits a chiropractor and a psychiatrist regularly, and continues to have dreams about the incident. “It’s like the prosecutors did not even care,” he told fellow protestors online before the event.

The protest has garnered national attention, although some reporting ignored the larger concerns of protestors. While the impact of Goodman’s ongoing drunk driving on the community was part of the protest, protestors were concerned about much more than Shaun Goodman. The protest was about a “justice” system that disproportionately locks up poor people and people of color. In that sense, Shaun Goodman wasn’t exceptional. He experienced what many well-off, white men can expect: the softer side of the court.

“Remember to me this isn’t about Shaun Goodman,” Sam Miller said afterward in a Facebook post, “This is about inequality. The amount of money you make and the color of your skin should not determine your punishment.”

Jayne Rossman lives and writes in Olympia. She attended the May 16 protest because she believes our prison system is unconscionable.

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