Who Won in Verdict of Guilty for O'Brien?

The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
February 18, 2004

And so we come to the verdict in this sorry spectacle, the case of the State of Arizona vs. Thomas J. O'Brien, and I wonder.

Who really won?

After five weeks of hearing about the drinking habits of a carpenter and the driving habits of a bishop, after seeing terrible pictures of a beloved father and son and conjuring terrible images of a man who once was the moral leader in this town, who won here?

Certainly not the Reed family, which will forever on this Earth carry the scars of what they have heard and what they have seen during these five weeks.

Certainly not the bishop, whose reputation shattered in the eyes of many long before he met Jim Reed on Glendale Avenue and for others the instant they saw that windshield.

Now, it comes to Judge Stephen A. Gerst to decide what is justice in this case. I don't envy him, for what is the punishment for not being a reasonable man?

In the end, that's what this case was about.

The jurors said it boiled down not to what the bishop did - or didn't do - in the 36 hours after Jim Reed's death but to the 10 seconds after Reed was struck on that darkened north Phoenix street.

Ten seconds when they say a reasonable man would have stopped. You have only to look at the windshield to know it.

And so he is guilty of leaving Jim Reed there to die on the street, a felony and a despicable crime all too common anymore, because people have figured out that they can get away with it if they just run.

But you cannot consider the punishment of Thomas J. O'Brien without also considering this: The jury doesn't believe that O'Brien ran because he figured out that he could get away with it. They believed O'Brien when he testified that he didn't know he'd hit someone. They believed him when he took the witness stand, all shaking and sweating, and said: "I would have stopped. That's the human thing to do. I couldn't imagine not stopping."

"We didn't doubt the bishop's testimony," juror Joan Sundeen said Tuesday.

"We have the utmost respect for the bishop," added Lois Dopler, the jury foreman.

"We have compassion for the Reed family. We have compassion for the bishop. . . . ," juror Erik Mikkelsen said. "But we looked at facts."

And the facts told them that this isn't a case like the case of Mark Torre, who in 2001 cut down 19-year-old Jessica Woodin as she crossed against a light, then ran to cover the fact that he had been drinking. This isn't like Edward Palenkas, who in 1995 cut down 11-year-old Kipp Turner as he walked in the street, then ran because he'd been drinking.

If the jury is right, this is about a man who never saw the trail of destruction he left in his wake, a man who apparently really is that clueless, that sheltered. A bishop so stunningly unaware of the world outside of himself that it never even occurred to him there on Glendale that he could have hit a man.

So now it comes to Judge Gerst.

There will be those who will delight at the idea of a bishop behind bars, those who want to punish O'Brien for his role in the sex scandal that played out under his watchful eye.

But then there will be those who, like me, will wonder where justice lies in a case such as this. No mere few months behind bars, which is likely all he would get, seems to offer much victory or even vindication.

Were it up to me, I would send him not to jail but to Navajo Mountain for a year or two. To the land of Lillie Reed. To the place where her son, Jim, grew up, the oldest of nine children.

Were it up to me, I would send him to work with and beside the Navajo people, to get to know them and maybe, just maybe, to learn to look outside his own world. To understand their pain and their loss and to ask, finally, for forgiveness . . . but only once he understands what he is asking of them.

Were it up to me, I wouldn't put the Most Rev. Thomas J. O'Brien in a cage. Better, I think, to impose a sentence that might make the bishop a better man.

Let him live with it.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.