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Doug Clark: Forgiveness is fine, but what about justice?

Clifford Helm – 5.

Justice – 0.

What a depressing way to start a weekend.

On Friday afternoon in Spokane Superior Court, a jury found Helm, a 58-year-old Deer Park man, not guilty on five counts of vehicular homicide.

Carmen, Jana, Carinna, Jerryl and Craig.

Those are the children whose lives were snuffed out in the horrific Nov. 1, 2005, crash that seemed to make no sense at all.

Helm drove his truck all over a stretch of U.S. Highway 395, plowing head-on into an oncoming pickup driven by Jeffrey Schrock, the children’s father.

Helm wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t stoned.

He didn’t talk much to investigators afterward, either, which raised considerable anger and suspicion.

The trial lasted three weeks.

The jury, which also acquitted Helm on one count of vehicular assault against Jeffrey, returned the verdicts in less than three hours.

You call that deliberating? I’ve had longer-lasting bouts of heartburn.

Boy, did I have this one pegged wrong.

I even lost a coffee bet with my editor. I owe her a cuppa joe, because I believed no jury on the planet would be dopey enough to let a driver skate on the deaths of five kids.

I know. I know.

Some of you want to give Helm a break.

He’s been forgiven and embraced by the Schrock parents, Jeffrey and Carolyn, and others who share their Mennonite faith.

Forgiveness is noble. But it should be tempered with justice. Otherwise soft-heartedness can be confused with soft-headedness.

I just can’t get past the fact that five young lives are wasted. Five futures gone.

Punishing Helm won’t bring them back. I know that.

But this outcome sends a terrible message about the responsibility a person accepts when he or she slides behind the wheel.

There’s no arguing that Helm’s erratic driving caused the crash that took the lives.

What brought about his erratic driving was the issue in the courtroom.

The prosecution argued that Helm was distracted by a cell phone. There were phone records to make this claim plausible.

The defense conjured up a hoodoo theory about a coughing spell that caused Helm to faint. Because of that, Helm couldn’t be held criminally responsible.

“Cough syncope,” they called it.

It must be rare. Not even Helm knew he had it until days after the wreck.

But it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m just an opinionated guy in a newspaper.

What mattered is that this jury of nine women and three men bought the fainting defense. Or at least the jury was befuddled enough by it.

Asked about it, the jury foreman told The Spokesman-Review that the prosecutor didn’t prove Helm hadn’t fainted.

Is that what passes for reasonable doubt these days?

Well, I’ve learned one thing from this trial.

If I ever wind up in the hoosegow, my first call will be to Helm’s attorney, Carl Oreskovich.

This guy’s good.

I’m also going to be more cautious when I’m driving.

I don’t know about you. But I don’t want to be in Helm’s trajectory the next time he suffers a phantom coughing fit.

Washington State Patrol Detective Tracy Hansen’s quote in the newspaper articulated the frustration.

“We don’t always win. That’s the way life is,” she said.

“It was just a tough case for everyone. This is as tough as it gets.”

I feel your disappointment, Detective. Many of us do.

But you know what they say.

God works in mysterious ways.

The jury system, on the other hand, sometimes doesn’t work at all.