Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sun Paper editorial today

County should move quickly to settle Lee lawsuit

OUR POSITION: There are no defensible reasons for Charlotte County to engage in a long, ugly battle in the Lee family civil lawsuit.

We see four good reasons the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office should move as quickly as possible to settle the wrongful death and negligence lawsuit brought by the family of Denise Amber Lee:

* It is the right thing to do.

* We look very bad.

* It may well cost more in the long run.

* Some small good may come of all this.

Nathan Lee filed the long-expected lawsuit Wednesday, a month and a half after a jury in Sarasota found Michael King guilty of kidnapping his wife, Denise, from her North Port home, then raping and murdering her. The jury also recommended the death penalty for King.

The question of the culpability of the Sheriff's Office remains, though. From all evidence so far, we can only conclude that the 911 dispatch center terribly botched a call from an eyewitness that might have saved Denise Lee's life. Nathan Lee contends the breakdown in communications showed "severe incompetence." We can't argue otherwise. Whether it was a matter of improper protocol or operator error, the bottom line is that we -- that is, the Sheriff's Office acting on our behalf -- bear some responsibility.

From the beginning, the Sheriff's Office has reacted to public accusations of wrongdoing with a defensive stance that only seemed arrogant and offensive. That has been counterproductive. It rubbed salt in a deep wound. It was wrong.

As Nathan Lee told the Sun's Elaine Allen-Emrich Tuesday, "The Charlotte County Sheriff's Office should be our biggest ally in trying to fix the 911 system, but instead they just want to fight us every step of the way."

He is right, and we need to put a stop to this as soon as possible.

For one thing, it's simply the right thing to do. We need to admit that we bear some responsibility.

A protracted civil court battle will only compound past mistakes. It prolongs the pain for the family. It makes us look even worse than we already appear. The longer we fight, the higher the legal bills. The county is in the position of fighting an extremely sympathetic plaintiff. A jury might always chose to "send a message" with a harsh judgment. There is no defensible reason to string this along until a last-minute jury drawing, a common legal tactic. There is no reason to believe the Lee family would accept one at that point.

Instead, the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office should:

* Work on a swift settlement. The sooner the better.

* Admit responsibility for mistakes and apologize.

* Agree to become a working model for top-flight 911 emergency operations.

* Work with the Denise Amber Lee Foundation in its effort to reform and improve emergency call standards nationwide, including higher levels of mandatory training for call takers.

We need to admit errors, reach a fair settlement and embrace change. We need to do the right thing. It would help to create a proper legacy for a young woman whose life might have been spared if the department had done its job properly. It could bring something good and decent from this horror.