Beyond the emotions of the headlines


Originally posted at the Houston Chronicle on March 16, 2008

The emotional impact of headline news by its nature depends on stereotypes.

You can’t capture real people in a headline.

So the first reports of the tragic death of Craig Miller come at us in stark terms.

A deputy sheriff on the way to relieve an undercover colleague is killed in a collision with Jose Jesus Vieyra, a Mexican national of unclear immigration status.

That’s enough to trigger a gut reaction.

Three weeks later, however, it turns out that the medical examiner’s office found the deputy to have had a blood alcohol content more than three times the legal limit when the collision occurred.

It was also determined that Vieyra has overstayed his legal visa.

Signs of acute alcoholism

A very different story line, slightly more complex but still very powerful.

Each headline gives us a villain and a victim.

Reality, however, is often something quite different.

Although the medical examiner’s autopsy indicated Deputy Miller showed signs of acute alcoholism, his family and friends describe him as a man of kindness, generosity and humor.

Some close to him think the autopsy was wrong. But even if it wasn’t, that doesn’t make him a villain. I’ve known alcoholics who were wonderful people.

They weren’t always proud of their behavior when in the grips of their addiction, but when sober they were as good and sometimes better than your average teetotaler.

`He didn’t deserve to die’

Deputy Miller was called after completing a day’s work and asked to take over for an undercover agent. If, as the autopsy suggests, he had been drinking heavily, he should have declined.

Nobody should know more than a police officer that he shouldn’t get behind the wheel while drunk.

But alcohol is not an enhancer of judgment. For example, he did not buckle his seat belt. But he followed his basic instinct, which was to answer a call to duty.

In today’s atmosphere there are those who consider illegal immigrants to be worse than alcoholic citizens.

Jose Vieyra, 56, who was working as a truck driver when the accident occurred, sits in Harris County jail charged with negligent homicide. Even if he is not convicted, he is likely to be deported.

He has told his lawyer that he doesn’t believe he caused the collision. You would think he would be angry at Miller for plowing into his truck, putting him in jail and likely leading to his deportation, either uprooting his family or separating him from them.

But consider his response to a Houston Chronicle reporter after learning of the report indicating the deputy was terribly drunk.

It wasn’t to curse the deputy, or to express relief that the charges might be dropped.

He lowered his head and said, “He didn’t deserve to die.” He added, “I’m praying for him and his family and also for me and my family.”

Records show that Vieyra not only has no criminal history, but has a valid Texas driver’s license without so much as a single traffic ticket on it.

The emotions of the first outline of the story – a deputy killed by an illegal immigrant – are not supported by the facts. Our natural instinct to look for a hero and a villain, or even a victim and a villain, is not neatly satisfied.

The only thing left is to look for justice.

Unfortunately, the public reasonably may question the objectivity of the sheriff’s office, which conducted the original investigation.

The county recently decided to pay $1.7 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the department of covering up the misbehavior of its deputies and wrongly charging innocent bystanders with a crime.

Even after a majority of jurors who had heard nine days of evidence said the county was wise to have settled, Sheriff Tommy Thomas said his office had done nothing wrong – hardly a stance to promote confidence in its ability to investigate its own.

Justice will be served only if prosecutors can look at the facts coldly and ask themselves whether they would pursue Vieyra if Miller had been, say, an insurance salesman.

A dead deputy’s honor cannot be restored by straining justice.