Death penalty

Serving 15 days for failure to pay fines, a man, age 73, dies. Why did it happen in jail? Bruce C. Hartman began the last hour of his 73- year life by eating a baloney sandwich and putting his head down down on one of eight cots in an austere unit of the Orange County Correctional Facility set aside for infirm inmates. At 12:35 p.m. on April 8, he was pronounced dead, seven days shy of completing a 15-day sentence. His was the fourth death this year in a jail that had only three deaths in all of 1996. Hartman, a World War II veteran and retired state of Illinois employment counselor who performed with a local barbershop chorus, had been arrested and jailed seven days earlier for driving with a suspended license; he had lost that license indefinitely after he was unable to keep up payments related to his fines and fees stemming from a a 1996 DUI conviction. His arrest this month was not the first time he ran afoul of the Orange County criminal justice system for lack of funds. Ultimately, though, it would be his last. At the time of his incarceration on April 1, Hartman was more than twice the age of the average inmate. His record showed only one previous overnight stay in jail, for the single 1996 charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. When he appeared before Judge Jim Henson, he was in a wheelchair. Appearing without an attorney, Hartman briefly explained that he had recently broken a pelvis and suffered from circulation problems in his legs. But neither Henson nor corrections officials who had examined him determined that Hartman should be spared jail time. "He was in a wheelchair, but he didn't look that bad," said Henson, who meted out the sentence after a five-minute hearing conducted via closed circuit TV, with the judge in the courtroom and Hartman in jail. While acknowledging Hartman's age and infirmity, Priscilla Petrarca, the assistant manager of medical services at the jail, said: "There was no acute medical problem." Yet a coroner who examined Hartman after his death found chronic pancreatitis, early bronchial pneumonia and high-blood pressure, along with insulin-dependent diabetes and alcoholism. While withholding a final ruling on cause of death pending results of lab tests, the medical examiner's office suspects that Hartman died of a heart attack. Why jail for such an elderly, infirm man? Hartman was among the most heinous class of scofflaws in the eyes of Orange County law enforcement, a drunk driver who had failed to meet the financial obligations of a plea bargain, who had fallen behind on his payments to the court while continuing to drive his car even though his license had been revoked. In 1996, Orange County jailed 5,887 people for driving with a suspended license. On a random date last week -- April 17 -- 12 percent, or 306 of the county jail's 3,696 inmates, were being held on the same charge. In a sense, Hartman's sentence was lenient. Judges typically order up to 30 days in jail for such cases. Hartman might have seemed a likely candidate to go free sooner under a pretrial release program designed to ease overcrowding at the 33rd Street facility. But Chief Circuit Court Judge Belvin Perry Jr. has prohibited jail officials from considering this option for anyone convicted of DUI within the previous 12 months. (Although that prohibition period had just expired in Hartman's case, the DUI still was taken into account in the decision to leave him in jail, officials said.) Officials also reject early release for repeat offenders -- and as Hartman's recent troubles attested, he qualified as one of those. His license first was suspended in December 1995 for failure to pay a traffic fine. He still had no license in March 1996 when he was stopped and recorded a blood alcohol content more than twice the legal limit -- immediately meaning another license suspension of six months. As part of his plea bargain in May on that DUI charge, he agreed to still another six-month license suspension. Then, in August, another suspension was levied for his failure to carry car insurance. In February, his license finally was suspended indefinitely. The reason: failure to pay his fines. Had he been able to meet his financial obligations, Hartman's penalties would have been cleared and he would have been driving legally. But because he could not, Hartman qualified as a repeat offender and wound up in jail -- a 73-year-old, wheelchair-bound diabetic alcoholic. Clearly, Hartman was down on his luck. By March 1996 he listed $89,000 in debts and had filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy case was dismissed in August, after Hartman fell behind on his payments. Once the bankruptcy was dismissed, the mortgage holder, First Indiana Bank, resumed efforts to take away Hartman's duplex on Eola Drive. By the time sheriff's deputies arrived to evict him in December, Hartman had moved to an apartment on Jefferson Street. The loss of his home was especially damaging for Hartman who, while living upstairs, had collected $650 a month by renting the downstairs. Thus the foreclosure robbed him not only of his home, but also a source of income and almost $30,000 in equity Under the Florida DUI law, violators must satisfy an expensive array of court requirements, including counseling and driving school. To get clear of his jam, Hartman would have needed more than $2,000 -- not including attorney fees. "A lot of these people are being made criminals because they are poor. It happens every single day," said attorney Steve Albee, who, while working as a public defender, represented Hartman in the DUI case. Broke and isolated from family in Illinois and New York, Hartman was on his own on April 1 when he was pulled over at Bumby Avenue and Jefferson Street for driving without headlights and taken to jail. Although he had $75 in his pocket, he remained in jail rather than arrange bail. Perhaps, as Henson suggested, Hartman felt he would have to do the time anyway and decided to get it over with. On April 7, in his closed-circuit appearance before Henson, Hartman made no attempt to plead for his freedom. Henson made a brief attempt to determine Hartman's physical problems, before ordering him to serve eight more days. "All right, sir," was Hartman's final statement to the judge. A day later, he was dead. Initially, Henson said, "I don't know this guy from Adam." But after reviewing the case and a tape recording of the hearing, the judge said that he would have handled the case differently, had he been aware of Hartman's precarious physical condition. "Our system is not perfect," he said. Rather than jail, Henson said he would have ordered the 73-year-old confined to home and monitored by an electronic ankle bracelet -- at county expense, if necessary. "If I'm going to die, I want to die at home," he said. Still, the judge emphasized his belief in jail time for those who drive without licenses. "Even though he's indigent, that doesn't excuse the fact that he drove." Henson, a former defense attorney elected in January, acknowledged the system might consider more compassionately the plight of poor defendants. "Maybe they need help," he said.