Accident awful, but jury decision understandable

Last week, former Hawaii County Police officer Jody Buddemeyer was sentenced to up to a year in jail for hitting Jeffrey Surnow from behind while traveling east in his police subsidized vehicle on Waikoloa Road.

The verdict closed a chapter to the 3-year-old story that is, by all accounts, a tragedy.

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Buddemeyer had faced first-degree negligent homicide, a class B felony that carried a prison term of up to 10 years, but the 12-member jury agreed to third degree negligent homicide, a misdemeanor.

Buddemeyer’s defense argued the officer was tired after logging a lot of hours — probably too many hours — and panicked after he hit the Michigan cyclist in the dark, early morning hours of March 1, 2015.

That panic, or acute stress shock, probably led to the now fired officer’s most malicious mistake — trying to conceal the accident after the fact.

The prosecution’s version of events was different. It was direct in arguing Buddemeyer “methodically and thoughtfully” put broken bike parts in his police cruiser as a way to conceal evidence after first driving away from the scene and that he purposely misled investigators after the fact with changing statements.

The real story is a probably a blend of both versions — an officer of good record made a terrible, stress-filled decision after an accident, then, when the panic and shock wore off, came clean.

Terrible things happen to good people. The Surnow family knows this better than anyone. Up to a year in jail as a punishment is warranted, but locking Buddemeyer away for up to a decade like a criminal who is a threat to society wouldn’t have served anyone in this instance. It won’t bring Surnow back. Buddemeyer will be better served learning from the tragedy and paying it forward by advocating and financially supporting for cyclist safety and road sharing concepts.

We hope some good deeds can rise from the wreckage the ex-officer created. Without them, it’s a sad saga devoid of any glimmer of a silver lining. A major component of punishment is rehabilitation, which can be hard to remember. In this case, rehabilitation would be Buddemeyer advocating and contributing to his community again. Up to 10 years in prison wouldn’t have worked toward that.

From the civil standpoint, however, we hope the court rules in favor of the Surnow family and Buddemeyer and Hawaii County are required to pay. Bike lanes have been added to the narrow road since the accident and the police department would be wise to lose the double-back shift officers work.

It can be easy to assume favoritism at play when an officer gets off lightly in the eyes of the public from a crime or negligent action. But we don’t think it’s that.

To the prosecution’s credit, they went after one of their own, and they went hard. But, in the end, the decision rested with 12 regular citizens, and they decided that sometimes awful things can happen even though nobody wanted them to.

It differs than the sentence Nick Martin received because different circumstances were at play. Martin severely injured a pedestrian while driving drunk shortly after posting bail after having been arrested for driving drunk.

Martin was charged with DUI and posted $500 bail just after midnight on Nov. 30, 2017. He had a BAC of 0.17. Hours later, on Dec. 1, 2017, Martin was driving along Alii Drive when he struck Robert LaMarca, who was out for a run. Martin’s BAC was 0.168, again over double the legal 0.08 limit.

For that, he received up to five years incarceration. When a drunk driver gets behind the wheel, that act alone serves as premeditated negligence.

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But Martin, as presentence investigators know, needs severe treatment for alcohol abuse. In his case, incarceration serves as in-house treatment, which he needs after prolonged misuse of the substance. Becoming sober at that point is an internal, medical rewiring that requires intense, wrap-around treatment. That is to say, Martin likely needs up to five years with professionals guiding him at nearly every turn.

That is rehabilitation served as well.