By Ray Tuenge, Jr.
A Lesson in Morality
Westside residents hold up signs pleading for peace in the community.
Nearly 150 people gathered in the parking lot of a Westside shopping plaza to honor 7-year-old Heidy Rivas Villanueva. Family, friends, and even strangers wore white T-shirts with the little girl’s smiling face on them. Heidy’s father sat leaning forward with his face buried in his hands. Her mother wept beside him. The opening prayers offered by Rev. Ronnie Cucuta were in Spanish, but the fervor and intensity in his voice was easily interpreted by everyone in attendance.
A week earlier, Heidy was sitting in the back seat of her father’s car with her younger brother, waiting for their mother to return from picking up groceries inside the El Tapatio store on 103rd Street. In an instant, gunfire erupted around them—13 shots in total. Bullets slammed into the side of their vehicle. When the shots stopped, Leonel Rivas whipped around to see if his children were okay. He found that his daughter had been struck in the head by a stray bullet.
“When I was paying, my husband ran inside and screamed, ‘They killed my little girl,’” Beatriz Villanueva, Heidy’s mother, said. “When I went outside, she was already in his arms and he started running toward the hospital.” Heidy died in her father’s arms.
The shooting was a result of a robbery under the pretense of a gun sale. 21-year-old Abrion Price and 17-year-old Trevonte Phoenix set up the “sale” on social media. A third man, 19-year-old Stanley Harris, served as the lookout for the buyer. When Harris saw that a robbery was happening, guns were drawn and the shooting began. The gun fight transitioned over from a nearby IHOP, to the shopping plaza where Heidy and her family were parked.
It’s easy to say that Heidy was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is true that she had the terrible misfortune of being caught in the crossfire at that exact moment. But living in Jacksonville is beginning to feel like being in the wrong place all of the time. Heidy was the fourth person under 18 killed this year.
Residents in Jacksonville expressed concern over the recent spate of violent crime. Following Heidy’s shooting, in an anonymous letter to Mayor Curry and Sheriff Williams, one citizen wrote, “Jacksonville is a war zone and no one seems to care.”
Mayor Curry, who’s top priority is public safety, tweeted his disgust following the shooting. “My Lord. My God. This is heartbreaking. These are our children. I’ve spoken to the Sheriff. Our cops are in pursuit of these terrible people. Prayers for the family. Our law enforcement will bring the full force of the law on those who committed this.”
Some attribute the uptick in violent crime to a lack of police presence or a lack of investment in public safety. But whether or not that has any truth in it, that explanation camouflages a broader, more troubling problem. The degradation of morality—the loss of a common humanity and dignity. What has happened to a community’s understanding of shared values? When did personal ethics take the place of a basic sense of right and wrong shared and understood by everyone?
In Heidy’s case, the men involved fired deadly weapons in a public space with no regard for anyone or anything around them. Their moral code is so twisted that one of them actually used the Villanueva’s car as a shield as they continued to shoot over the top of their vehicle.
Four years ago Heidy Rivas Villanueva’s parents left Honduras for America. They were seeking a brighter future—the opportunity to raise their family in a safer environment. In Honduras, where 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, widespread gang violence drives suffering and instability. It’s commonplace for criminals to extort families into paying a “war tax” for their protection. If they can’t afford to pay, they are often killed.
They came to our county, our state and city looking for a safer place to raise their family. Instead, they are sending their 7-year-old daughter back to Honduras in a coffin. I think it’s time for Jacksonville to take a long, hard look at itself. We need to reestablish what are shared values are. For all our differences, placing a greater value on life is something we can all agree on. We’re all in this together.
Help Us Achieve Our Goal
By Michael J. Liles
Too many of us are finding out how truly short life can be. Every day, there is a new, stunned and horrified person who learns that two who had become one have become half again. It is as if you are in the crosswalk and the 70 mph Greyhound bus doesn’t notice you until it hits you. Your heart explodes in a crush that stops you instantly. You can’t breathe it hurts so bad.
You are spared most of the questions: “do you know anyone who would want to harm someone that has never hurt another soul intentionally in her life?” Clearly cables and wires that had been connected to a missing television provide the officers the first clue. The body on the floor probably walked in as a burglar was walking out. He was walking out with property that didn’t belong to him.
The previously non-violent burglar is about to become a very violent felon with your loved one. Of course the Police have to ask, “where were you at the Coroner’s stated time of death?” Of course you know they checked it out. The Coroner? You know they have checked it out. Someone with good intentions will actually tell you to your face that the police actually have to rule the immediate family out before looking elsewhere. Of course you understand…well sort of…
Suddenly, there is an arrest and an arraignment is scheduled. The media wants to talk to you. They never had even noticed you existed before. Now, they have questions. One of them is asking you, “how did you feel finding the love of your life on the floor of your kitchen?” You wonder how hard it would be to garner sympathy from a jury of your peers for assaulting a reporter with insensitive questions.
To add insult to injury you get to watch perfect strangers debate with themselves as to whether or not they could or couldn’t imagine how you feel! The entire world (apparently except for one) is sorry for your loss! You remember hearing in a funeral service that someone once said, “I haven’t lost my bride. I would have never been so careless with something that precious to me!”
Numb, you wake up and get dressed. You grow a beard for the first time in your life. The morning before the memorial service the steel blade against your neck looked, well, easy. Somehow you find yourself in front of a massive door in front of courtroom number 605. A nice but firm bailiff with a clipboard asks you why you are there. You desperately want to say, “I have no idea?” The bailiff asks you who the defendant is in your case? Your mind goes blank…
Suddenly a nice person walks up. The person apparently recognizes your stunned face from media reports. The nice person tells you that they are a Victim’s Advocate with the Justice Coalition. They ask you what appears to be the most intelligent and comforting question you have heard since the attack on your family. The Advocate asks you, “may I help you get through this?”
The advocate points on the clipboard held by the bailiff and points at one of the lines that says, “State of Florida vs. (defendant’s name). The Advocate is telling you that if you have a cell phone with you that you need to turn it all of the way off. It cannot simply be on vibrate. Just then the Bailiff in a firm voice asks you, “do you have a cell phone with you? You have to turn it all the way off. If the judge hears it vibrating, you will be kicked out of the courtroom.
You have no idea how long this will take. It is over as quickly as it began. You are wondering what in the world just happened. The Advocate, paid for by contributions made by friends of the victims and/or the Coalition, asks if you have ever had any experience with the legal system?
No…no one has ever murdered anyone you were actually living for before. You think, wait a minute. No! You have never murdered anyone before either. The Advocate chuckles even as they continue to ask great questions. “Are you aware that there are funds available for counseling, burial costs, and replacement income?” The Advocate offers to help you fill out the paperwork. You discover that you are going to be coming to the courthouse every two weeks to a month for the next year. Possibly even two years!
It suddenly occurs to you that you haven’t seen anyone that even remotely resembles Jack McCoy, who will be nailing the animal who thrust you into this scenario. You are angry as you are seeking something that is referred to as justice and/or closure. The Advocate interrupts your thoughts and asks you if anyone from the State Attorney’s office has contacted you. The Advocate offers to reach out to the State Attorney’s office to find out who will be handling the case.
You thank the Advocate for all of their help. You are told the one thing that has given you any sense of hope since you lost your loved one. “We will be with you as long as this case is active.” You realize that you have made a friend. You ask, “until the verdict is pronounced?” The Advocate smiles and says, “until after the appeals!”
Please help us be there for the next stunned husband, wife, mother, father, brother or sister who stands in front of that large door wondering what the bailiff is saying. Help us achieve our goal.
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Tampering with the Victim
By Jay Howell
In cases of child sexual assault, the young victim is often threatened by the perpetrator. Typically, the child is threatened that if they tell anyone about what happened, harm will come to them. Sometimes the perpetrator threatens to hurt the child, and in other cases the perpetrator warns the child that if they report the incident to anyone, the child will be taken away from their family or will suffer other bad consequences. In the past, the perpetrators were not often charged with the separate crime of tampering with a witness. A recent decision by the appellate court for Northeast Florida may change that. In rendering their decision, the Court cleared up some confusion about the evidence necessary to sustain a conviction for tampering with a witness.
The defendant had been charged with the crimes of sexual battery and tampering with a victim. Florida law defines tampering with a witness or victim as the use of intimidation, physical force, threats, or misleading conduct with the intention to hinder, delay, or prevent communication about a crime to a law enforcement officer or judge. The defendant argued that the state had to prove that he directly inhibited the child’s ability to contact law enforcement. The defendant argued that previous appellate decisions had developed a general rule that disabling the victim or witness’s phones, by itself, was not enough. The State had to prove that the victim or witness was attempting to call law enforcement at the time the phones were broken. The defendant argued that this requirement applied to all charges for tampering with a victim or witness.
The appellate court in this case declined to endorse or establish any such general rule. Instead, the appellate court clearly stated that the only general rule that did apply was that the State must prove the defendant knowingly took some type of action with the intent to hinder, delay, or prevent the victim from communicating information to law enforcement relating to the commission of the offense. The appellate court then applied the correct general rule to the facts of this case. At the defendant’s trial, the State submitted evidence that the defendant told the victim “not to tell nobody or he’ll come back and he’ll hurt her.” The court found that the State’s evidence was legally sufficient to show that the defendant knowingly intimidated the child victim to prevent her from reporting the sexual battery to law enforcement. The court found that the State presented sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction for tampering with a victim. The defendant’s convictions were affirmed.
The name of the case is Frazier v. State, and was decided by the First District Court of Appeal on June 28, 2018. This important decision should open the door for additional criminal charges in this all-to-common scenario in crimes committed against children.
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Editorial and Advertising: Ray Tuenge, Jr. / Editor