Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sweeping it under the carpet

No posts for a few days - a situation which I will be in a position to explain in a day or two. For now, I can say that the big scare we had has receded somewhat, and in the official colours of scares authorised by the Department of Homeland Security we've probably been lowered from a Magenta to a Puce, or something.

Anyway, lets talk about the news that is gripping the country. That of the acquittal of Christopher VanGoethem, US Marine, on charges of negligent homicide (and adultery). So let's review the facts: In December 2004, VanGoethem, a Marine in a plum job at the US Embassy in Bucharest, was driving home from having sex with his girlfriend, a secretary at the embassy (VanGoethem is married), jumped a stop sign and rammed into a taxi, killing its passenger, one Teofil Peter (who happened to be, before his untimely demise, bass player in Romanian rock band "Compact"). Breathalysed at the scene, VanGoethem was discovered to have a blood alcohol level of 0.09 (over the limit in more or less every country in the world that I'm aware of), and hours later tested at the US Embassy to still have a level of 0.02 (still way above the limit in Romania which is 0.00).

The next day, VanGoethem was whisked out of the country to be tried by a US Military court. That court has just returned a verdict of not guilty on charges of negligent homicide and adultery, but has found him guilty of obstructing justice (he phoned his girlfriend afterwards to try and make their stories fit), and has dished out the very very harsh punishment of a letter of reprimand.

That much is beyond dispute. The trial is the thing that seems, well, let's just say, dodgy. The defence's case seems to have rested on not having any proof that Teo Peter was actually in the taxi (despite the fact that firemen had to cut his mangled body out of the mangled wreckage), and that the road junction was so confusing that he couldn't possibly have negotiated it successfully (this is a major road junction in a major European capital city, which tens of thousands of people manage to negotiate successfully on a daily basis). Miraculously this outrageous bluff seems to have been successful - due mostly to the fact that the prosecution were completely hopeless, and didn't even bother to counter these rizla-thin arguments. They didn't even call the taxi driver to the stand.

As you might imagine, this has not played out very well in Romania. Romania, let us not forget is a fairly pro-American country in European terms. They're a member of the so-called "Coalition" in Iraq, and as far as I can tell, this status is not a heavily criticised one in public opinion. The governments of the two countries seem to get on fairly well, and the US are about to open some kind of military base here (but they never used the country as a site for their ongoing torture of random Arabs and other Muslims, that's just a vicious rumour). The TV News a couple of days ago could talk about nothing else but this slap in the face and how the whole nation has been spat upon by the US Military justice system. In this respect, I think that the fact that this guy was famous and not Gheorghe Nobodyescu has had a positive effect - no-one is prepared to let this be swept under the carpet. The government has offered Peter's family money to pursue a civil case, and everyone is anxious to be seen to be upset by this. (The most nauseating thing on TV was seeing VanGoethem's mother interviewed outside the courtroom talking about how much her son has suffered and how glad she is that this is over and how she feels that she understands Peter's family since her family has gone through so much in this case too. Now, I presume VanGoethem has suffered - after all he killed some innocent bloke who was just going home one night, and I have to assume that he (VanGoethem) is a normal human being who feels guilt and compassion about the results of his negligence, but for someone in his family to play that card is, to say the least, obscene.)

This story has no media coverage whatsoever in the US (outside of the Stars and Stripes, the military paper), but tons and tons here. As PR it is a huge gaffe of vast proportions. You'd think someone could have had a word with the court and said "Listen guys, I know we normally brush these things under the carpet, but this time, we have to show that we care about justice, because the whole country of Romanian is watching us, and we want to keep them onside". But no, they just whitewashed the whole incident. Nice going, guys. Good work.

Better written English language blogs on the same subject:
Claudia at Halfway Down the Danube and Soj at Flogging the Simian .


Anonymous said...

You are obviously under the influence of the Romanian media's hysteria. Or you have a baseline anti-american bias. One of them. You choose.

The american D.A. invited the taxi driver to be a witness but, "miraculously", he was not willing to accept free food + lodging + travel + no visa + 40$/day. 40$/day in Romania is a fortune, even for a taxi driver. You are incredibly uninformed for a blogger.

I had a saying, while living in Romania: the problem with all these foreigners is that, after living in Romania, they end up behaving and thinking like the Romanians, instead of the other way round. Congratulations! You seem one of them.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify the previous post: please read this.

Still doesn't anything smell fishy with that taxi driver? ;)

Oh, and this one.

And this is a quote from "Stars and Stripes":
In his own closing statements, Maj. Charles Miracle, the lead prosecutor, argued that VanGoethem was familiar with the intersection.

“Your common sense will tell you he either ignored [three] stop signs, or he zoned out,” Miracle said.

“And the only explanation” for the crash was “alcohol and fatigue,” Miracle said. (end quote)

Do you still feel so sure about the American sweeping under the carpet?

Andy H said...

The taxi driver claims he was not subpoened (sp?)

And, I'm glad to see the prosecutor did actually make a statement suggesting that VanGoethem was in the wrong. It was after all his job to do so. The fact remains that in the trial itself, he managed to take an open and shut case and present it so badly that the defence won.

By the way, on your saying: "the problem with all these foreigners is that, after living in Romania, they end up behaving and thinking like the Romanians, instead of the other way round."

Do you really think that the ideal situation would be that Romanians would end up thinking and behaving like those wonderful foreigners from exposure to their higher ways? Interesting theory. We (the higher civilisations of outside Romania) ought to invade and occupy the country in order to bring them up to our level.

Andy H said...

Oh, and I don't consider myself to be either under Romanian media influence - read other posts and see for yourself, and I don;t consider myself to have an anti-American bias. I lived there for 6 years and enjoyed my time very much. I do possibly have a bias against the internal machinations of the US Army (which is an entirely different thing) - a nascent bias which has been definitely supported by this farcical "trial".

Anonymous said...

Andy, I apologize. I was rude.

And yes, I consider Western civilizations to be superior, from certain points of view, to the Romanian one. And one of those points of view is the way of delivering Justice.

In this case, although probably the American Army did not do its best to get the marine sentenced for manslaughter, there were many problems on the Romanian side, too. So, maybe, both sides were busy sweeping the dirt under the carpet.

Anyway, my apologies, again.

Andy H said...

Thanks, apology accepted.

I'm stil fairly reticent about accepting I consider Western civilizations to be superior, from certain points of view, to the Romanian one, but I suspect our difference of opinion here may be one of vocabulary than one of substance (the word "civilizations" here is the one that jars I think).

And I do agree that the justice systems in the USA/UK/Western Europe are more likely to be uncorrupted and just than here. Though I think that's got nothing to do with it being "Romanian" and more to do with it being post-communist transition. However, and it's a big however, I would trust the Romanian justice system over the internal US Military one (or any internal military court martial system, not just American). I think even in post-communist Romania the justice system is at least transparent for the most part and set up, broadly speaking, to do the right thing (though it may have some corrupt individuals working in it), whereas I don't believe that to be the case in this trial (or in other court martial situations in more or less any country)

romesperi said...

To the anonymous reader - I think your position on this matter borders a bit on racism, if you don't mind me saying. Romania is very much part of the Western world and shares a series of core European values with the other countries of this continent.

As Andy pointed out, the fact that the justice system may not be as transparent here hasn't got anything to do with "core cultural values" or with Romanians being different from the Western civilisation (the whole Huntington hypothesis is IMO totally missing the point) but with political factors - i.e. transition. I suppose you could argue that communism introduced ideological changes that are hard to brush off, and you would have a point there. But Portugal, Greece and even Italy, which are undoubtedly "western" have until recently had these problems, and they're all political, not cultural.

This whole East-West divide was constructed after WWII, after the advent of communism, and I presume that once economic convergence takes place, it will disappear. Or, Euroe may be divided in different ways (North-South is more relevant).

Just look at Slovenia for example, which has converged to high-income Europe, and you barely see any difference now between it and say, Spain, or similar-income countries. Czechia and Hungary are close to doing the same. Romania has a longer way to go, but it will get there too. The best example of a similar case is Greece, which has only in recent decades become a Western-style democracy (with fair justice). Would you say that you belive Western European civilisation is superior to Greek?

Anonymous said...

To: Csikszereda Musings & Sweeping under the Carpet.

First, this was never "swept" under the carpet as you put it. And reviewing the true and correct facts of this case. #1 The blood alcohol level was zero and the breathalyzer was .09 milligrams per ml the U.S. equivalent of .019. Which is far below every legal limit. #2 He did not jump a stop sign as you put it... A flashing yellow in four directions? With mismarked stop signs? Was the taxi speeding and would have the crash been avoided if a Romanian citizen would have been obeying all traffic laws as well? YES!
Do you know that under the U.S. Military court when found guilty at a general court martial and received the letter of reprimand that he was convicted of a felony? VanGoethem lost his amendment right to bear arms, right to vote, lost his job as a United States Marine. The taxi driver chose not to come to the United States. Chose not to testify, if the Romanian gov't wants to help with monetary funds for civil suit why not give monetary funds to get the taxi driver here? Doesn't make sense. Also, Romania (coming from the Romanian prosecutors) has not put ANYONE in jail for negiligent homicide in 12 years. So, he should go to jail just because he's an American. Extremely one sided. Your an AMERICAN and therefore deserve worse than what a Romanian would suffer? And far as his mother making a statement - all she said was that she understands the tradegy and how horrible this has been for Peter's Family because it has been an emotional rollercoaster for his family, siblings, wife and children as well. Just like the other blogs you posted try to take the truth parts. The whole idea of a blog is put your opinion across but it helps to be truthful about it too.

Andy H said...

Brilliant! I applaud you for your wonderful comment. This kind of thing is comedy gold.

I don't even know where to begin.

The facts are that he was over the limit in both the breathalyser test and even the blood alcohol test which was administered hours later. It is of course possible that he was not at fault for the accident, and only those who were there could say for sure - the taxi driver, him, and Teo Peter. Unfortunately the only evidence we had to go on was his, since one of the other two witnesses was dead, and the other one was dissuaded from showing up. (This bit of the story - the taxi driver's non-attendance- is the piece that's still murky to my mind). But all the evidence (the positions of the cars, the speed that VanGoethem must have been driving at, etc etc) points to him being guilty - and because he was over the limit he has no legal leg to stand on in any justice system I know (He certainly wouldn't have a leg to stand on in the regular US justice system, and he'd have been jailed - and you KNOW that's true)

But you're right he was punished: He lost his right to bear arms. What a terrible punishment that is. Really, I can't believe you've even said that it's so ludicrous.

He should go to jail because he killed someone while driving drunk not because he is American. I would feel the same if he were from Chad, Germany or Thailand.

Who are you, anonymous commenter? Mrs VanGoethem, by any chance?

Anonymous said...

No Sorry Andy H. I'm not Mrs. VanGoethem just someone that actually sees there more to the story and more to the trial than you do. It's funny that you take the one part of what I said, "the right to bear arms" as being funny. All I was doing was listing out some of things that he lost as well. And that sir, is a very small part of what was lost. But in your black and white world you can't see past one small part of what I said. No one anywhere, including this Marines family has said that this wasn't tragic and horrific. And Mr. Andy H., there is always the Freedom of Information Act where you can get every document from the trial.

Andy H said...

Ok, my anonymous friend, that wasn't the only bit I found funny, it was more or less all of what you wrote. But anyway, let's go back over this.

1. My initial post contains a mixture of fact and opinion, as you know. It is in no way difficult for the reader to seperate the two. None of the facts are wrong. The opinion, well, is my opinion, but I don't think it's especially radical or out of left field.

2. I don't know of any justice system in any democracy the world where you can be over the legal blood alcohol limit, get into an accident, and just walk away - even if the accident was technically not your fault. In this case it seems pretty clear (based on the evidence) that it was his fault.

3. I didn't realise that what he was found guilty of was actually a felony. I'm still not 100% convinced that it is to be honest, but if you could show me a link to confirm it, I'd be delighted. I do think, though, that a letter is a pretty weird punishment for being convicted of a felony.

4. The reason I found the loss of his right to bear arms particularly blackly comic was that (a) I think it's a stupid "right" anyway; and (b) obviously if he does have the desperate urge to kill someone despite not being able to walk around with a gun, he can obviously just get in his car. OK, OK, cheap shot.

5. When it comes down to it, what his punishment is is kind of irrelevent. What is relevant is the US Military "justice" system riding roughshod over due process and basically treating all innocent foreign victims as collateral damage.

Why this is an important case is not because some idiot marine got drunk and killed someone, not because the dead guy was moderately famous, not because he got X or Y punishment, but because it was just another example for the rest of the world that the US doesn't give a shit about innocent foreign lives. Now this is an unfair perception of the US, but it is definitely the way that the majority of the world feels. It's unfair that the actions of the US military are seen as being representative of the US population as a whole.

If this guy had been given a fair trial, then this nation would have accepted that, and would and could have treated vanGoethem as they would have treated any other individual driver who killed someone while driving over the limit. But as it is, it is seen as yet another indication that the US system doesn't give a damn for foreign lives - whether they be innocent citizens of a "friendly" nation or of an "unfriendly" nation.

It's a shame, and it reflects terribly on the US. Sorry, but that's the way it is.

Anonymous said...

Any charge that a service member is found guilty of in a General Court Martial is considered a Felony Conviction. There are tons of court martial documents online where you can verify that information.