The American legal system has an all-important obligation to deliver justice. When a defendant is found guilty of a heinous crime and of inflicting terrible suffering, for example, society needs to mete out serious punishment. Justice needs to be served.
But where, an Omaha father rightly asks, is the justice for his family in the wake of legal developments last week?
Kay LeFlore’s son — decorated Army Sgt. Kyle LeFlore — was gunned down in Omaha in January, leaving behind a wife and a 6-year-old son. But now the defendant, Larry Goynes, no longer faces first-degree murder charges in the case. The reason: The state’s key witness backed out.
Prosecutors allege that two people, including an aunt of the defendant, attempted to intimidate the witness, a 36-year-old woman.
“You took away the greatest thing I ever produced — my baby son,” Kay LeFlore said last week. “He was so young, so vibrant, so well-mannered, so loved by the people who knew him. Everything was going so good for him.”
Kyle LeFlore, fatally shot outside a lounge in the Florence neighborhood, had completed two tours apiece in Iraq and Afghanistan and one tour in South Korea. The weekend of his death, he was in his hometown en route to his next Army stop, a promotion in Arizona.
After the first-degree murder charges were dropped Tuesday against Goynes, State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said he plans to introduce legislation next year to increase the penalties for witness tampering.
Under current Nebraska law, someone convicted of witness tampering faces the state’s lowest possible felony and the equivalent of one year in prison, and state law encourages probation. Wayne, a criminal defense attorney, says he wants to increase the penalty to the equivalent of the underlying crime or at least one notch below that level.
“There’s a street code out there that has confused snitching with witnessing a crime,” Wayne said. “If you’re a witness, you’re a witness. You’re not a snitch. If we don’t make people think twice about threatening or harming a witness, then what’s the point?”
Nebraska adopted its current witness tampering law in 1977 and last amended it in 1994.
Wayne’s proposal has the support of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, whose office sees about 10 to 20 cases of witness tampering a year.
Kleine says his office will proceed with the first-degree murder case against Jason Devers, another defendant in the case, under the felony-murder rule that holds an accomplice accountable if someone dies in the commission of a robbery. Prosecutors have physical evidence against Devers, according to court testimony.
The call for an increased witness tampering penalty is justified. But so is the note of caution voiced by State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who said Nebraska lawmakers need to proceed carefully whenever contemplating significant changes in sentencing.
The Constitution rightly requires that a defendant know the identity of his accusers, and that requirement alone can raise obstacles to getting witnesses to testify. Justice, indeed, extends to a defendant’s right to a fair trial, with prosecutors obligated to demonstrate guilt.
The proper way forward is for the Legislature to scrutinize and debate this issue thoroughly next year. Wayne should introduce his proposal, and the Judiciary Committee should hold a hearing on it. Let all sides weigh in. Lawmakers can take the arguments into consideration and work to develop final legislation.
One of the questions to be debated is whether an increase in the penalty would actually deter people from witness tampering.
But another question also needs to be considered: Can’t something be changed in Nebraska law to help ensure that justice is delivered in the wake of heinous murders?
Kyle LeFlore’s family is right to ask that question. So are Nebraska lawmakers.