Why “He’s Suffered Enough” Is Not Enough

Not enough.

“He’s suffered enough” is one of the more popular and effective rationalizations, usually put into use in defense of white collar criminals and the likes of Roman Polanski, wealthy or once-respectable criminals for whom remorse and humiliation are deemed to be as devastating as incarceration.  Yet it is still a rationalization—a deceptive representation of the truth—and shows a misunderstanding of what official punishment needs to accomplish.

A sad drama has played out in a Montgomery County Maryland court, where twenty-year old Kevin Coffay was sentenced to twenty years in prison for fleeing the scene of a May auto accident that he had caused by being drunk behind the wheel, as Spencer Datt, 18; John Hoover, 20; and Haeley McGuire, 18, remained in the wreck after Coffay fled.  All three died.

Coffay was stunned by the sentence, and news reports say that the case has torn the community apart, with the families of the victims seeking retribution, and supporters of Coffay pleading for compassion and mercy. Their argument, as it always is in such tragedies, is that “he’s suffered enough”. This misses the point of the trial, the sentence, and the societal ritual that such events demand. The objective is not to make Coffay suffer. Nobody denies that he is remorseful and guilt-ridden; he knew all the victims personally, and understands the awful results of what he has done. Society, however, must constantly establish and reinforce its ethical boundaries, make it apparent to all the conduct it regards as intolerable and wrong, and signal to others that they must avoid engaging in similar conduct, and can rely on harsh consequences if they do not.

County prosecutors told the court that Coffay made a “cowardly choice” demonstrating a “callous attitude.” “It is horrible to simply abandon your friends as they are dying for no other reason than to try to avoid the consequences for your actions,” they argued. Yes, it is. The County cannot announce to the community just how horrible by letting Keven Coffay off with just an 18 months sentence, as his lawyers suggested. That might have been more than enough to teach Coffay his lesson, but it is not nearly enough to show society’s opposition to the despicable values his actions displayed. He chose to operate a motor vehicle while seriously impaired by alcohol. Knowing he was intoxicated, he operated his vehicle at a reckless speed. Because of his recklessness, he caused a fatal accident, and rather than stay on the scene to render assistance and accept responsibility for his conduct, he ran away.

There is only one way for the community to effectively and unambiguously condemn this anti-social conduct, and that is to condemn the young man who engaged in it— to punish him in proportion to the enormity of his unethical actions. For him to suffer isn’t enough, nor is it the primary objective. The objective is to make a statement that cannot be misinterpreted now or years from now, that citizens have certain duties to each other, and when those duties are grievously breached, society will show its disapproval proportionally—no matter how much the wrongdoer may have suffered.

16 thoughts on “Why “He’s Suffered Enough” Is Not Enough

  1. Certainly he has to be punished but the sentence is too high and serves no purpose and in this case would seem to be creating tensions within the community that will have a lasting effect on many.

    Punishment must be a fit punishment for the crime not one that is influenced by revenge. I am highly dubious of the concept of making a statement that ‘cannot be misinterpreted’.
    The death penalty seems to have little deterrence value as indeed, do many of the high penalties now being handed out in US courts. I guarantee this sentence will have nil effect upon would-be drink drivers (a terrible scourge that needs real problem solving apart from policing)
    It’s a complex process to judge a person who has been through an horrific event as this man has despite his fleeing from the scene. Dramatic events affect people in unknown ways. He is most certainly guilty but did his flight from the scene cause the deaths of his friends.Sadly they share blame as well. They were drunk and accepted the lift.

    • It seems likely that he has wrecked a previous car while drinking and driving, he ignored his passenger who begged him to slow down, he left the scene without checking on his friends, he evaded the police dogs, and when told his friends were dead he stated that they were fine when he left. That doesn’t deserve serious punishment? He only received 1/2 the maximum sentence, so you can’t even say they threw the book at him. I am somewhat disturbed that you object to the sentence because it will cause tensions within the community. This suggests that some people are above the law. If the convicted was a 40 year old alcoholic that nobody liked and abused his wife, would 20 years be OK?

      Many young people do really stupid, selfish, and reckless things because they have never been held accountable for their actions. Someone always gave them a break. This kid drank underage, drove drunk, and never really had to face any serious consequences and his mother admitted as much. Now, several people are dead because of his reckless and selfish actions and people want to give him another break? How many more people have to die before he learns his lesson? What message would it send to all the other reckless and selfish kids.? “It’s OK if you mess up and kill some people. Just try to cover it up. Lie about it if that doesn’t work. If it looks like you actually might have to face proportional punishment, be sorry and offer $0.05 on the dollar and it will all be OK. ”

      As far as revenge, people in civilized society have given up that right in return for the state taking care of it and assuring that reasonable punishment is administered. I’m sorry, but if some punk kid killed my son and a couple of others and only got three months in jail and 15 months probation, I would not feel that justice had been done, I would feel that the system had failed me, and I would be really tempted to take the matter into my own hands. You do need to understand that some people are sort of attached to their children and take it seriously when someone kills them. An 18 month jail sentence is what someone gets for their second, accidentless DUI. It is not a serious punishment for this crime.

        • Ditto. As for the old “revenge” mantra, it’s as irrelevant as ever. The question here is the fundamental one of the rights and corresponding responsibilities of a free citizen in a free society. When the consequences for wrongdoing are held in abeyance or moderated unreasonably, then the foundations of freedom are eroded. Without personal responsibility, there can be no freedom… for anyone, ultimately. Paternalistic plutocracy replaces the free republic. And, as usual, it happens in the name of “compassion”. Also: As I was told in my Army correctional specialist training, “They’re sent here AS punishment, not FOR punishment.” Not revenge. Penance.

      • OK-now I know more of the events of the night although I am a bit puzzled how anyone knows the deceased begged the driver to slow down.

        I still disagree with the length of the sentence and would not wish it to be as low as “three months in jail and 15 months probation” but somewhere in the region of 5 years with the opportunity for the young man to mend his ways and be allowed to return to society as a useful member which is also one stated purpose of punishing people with jail sentences. I have that right as my taxes go to maintain someone in jail for 20 useless years more often than not in a for profit jail.

        Your child wasn’t killed and you write as though the sentence should reflect a punishment in proxy in case that happens.
        Society does not hand over it’s rights to the court for ‘revenge’-it’s hands them over to authorities to enforce the law etc with the very idea that society’s “revenge” is removed from the equation in an unemotional atmosphere.

        I have been in one serious accident (not involving alcohol) and I have little memory of the events and I was told by my doctor at the time that that was common after a dramatic trauma which clearly this accident would be despite the guy being a punk. I would dismiss anything he said on the night. But still demand he be punished.

        There is also the factor (rarely taken into account) that any young person acts in ways older people do not. Psychologists are still discovering how our minds work and now say that teens/young men not only act as though they are invincible- they do it because their minds are geared that way -to exclude the opposite,

        I would hope that you have taught you children (a difficult task) to be responsible and not get drunk and then get into a car (as these unfortunates did) with a drunk driver.

  2. nb: I should have added- I agree that “He’s Suffered Enough” Is Not Enough is entirely correct and it’s an overused phrase. I disagree with the length of the sentence but jail time is needed for the sake of the young man himself to reflect on his crime.

  3. It’s the sentence he’d have probably gotten if he knew none of the dead. Which as pointed out above isn’t even the max. Personally, what I’ve heard locally seems this is the first time in his life he didn’t get off easily. I’ll bet it’s hard knowing your dumbass stunt killed 3 friends. But if they had been strangers, there would be no ‘suffered enough’ hew and cry.

    • He drank and drove, left three kids who he harmed alone to die, fled and lied about it.. I could argue that he STILL is getting off easy. Terrible acts should have terrible consequences. I don’t understand where our culture started creating the attitude that Ossie seems to have. I don’t care whether the kid reflects or not. His recklessness took the lives of three young people, and that demands accountability in proportion to what he did and the harm he caused. When we minimize the consequences, we reduce the acknowledgment of the harm.

      • “Terrible acts should have terrible consequences.”. But they don;t do they?. Politicians can lie to send young men and women to wars in which tens of thousands die and escape penalty and are lauded and receive great riches for doing so.

        What attiitude ? All we are arguing on here is about the amount of punishment although as I previously stated-people have actually claimed to know what went on inside the car between the driver and passengers despite those passengers being deceased.

        You are minimizing the consequences of personal responsibility and people must share blame for their own actions. The deceased participated in alcohol with and got into a car with him with the knowledge he was drunk and so were they. That does not negate or minimize his actions. Or theirs.

        Others are making up their concept of the law and include the ‘revenge’ factor which has never been stated as a principal in law and is sited as the very reason for handing over the implementation of our laws to an impartial process. Most of the replies here (including the moderator) include elements of revenge.

        I state the sentence is disproportionate and serves no useful purpose to anybody including the agrieved families, the victims, society or the young man and the fact that the USA is the country with sentences (such as the 40 years) are so out of whack with the rest of the world (except perhaps the worst dictatorial governments) combined with the USA having the largest proportion of prisoners in the world and the largest amount of repeat offenders would bear out my view that the USA is so bent on revenge it has lost all sight of implementing just and useful laws.

        This website isn’t about ‘ethics’ It”s an attempt to isolate actions and make the claim they are ethical which negates the actions of a person or corporation as a whole.

        It’s like saying because a serial murderer acts ethically because he’s nice to his mum, helps old ladies cross the street, pays his taxes and so on and ignores his crimes.

        • What?????
          Your last two paragraphs are diametrically opposed to the approach and philosophy here. There is no way you could reasonably reach such a conclusion based on anything I have written.

          When argument fails, resort to fictions and nonsense, I guess. Good luck with that.

        • And I must add—blaming the victims for trusting their friend is outrageous. They placed their life in his hands—the fact that he was unworthy of that trust can not be visited upon them. They did not consent to his speeding, they did not consent to his leaving them to die. Their death is entirely his fault, and society must signify that killing three innocents and running away is not tolerated or subject to rationalizations. The objective is not to hurt Coffay. The objective is to show proper respect for the lives he took with his conduct, and proportional condemnation of his actions and their tragic results. Upholding the value of life is not retribution.

  4. You are holding yourself up as the arbiter of ethics Mr Marshall so deal with criticism.

    I have not it any of my posts ‘blamed the victims’ and you are incorrect to claim I have.

    I have said people must also be aware of their own actions and by getting drunk with this young man and getting into a car with him- knowing he was drunk and allowing him to drive (with the unfortunate fatal consequences) demonstrates that the victim’s mind set was not very different from the driver.
    Despite the rather bizarre claim on here by other posters that they “pleaded with him to stop” (how they obtained this knowledge is not explained )

    Indeed-the sad truth is they were the ones to pay the price with their deaths-and the driver pays a price with his incarceration.

    It could have been others though. Another innocent driver or a pedestrian. That does not absolve the victims of the fact that they were perfectly willing to allow a driver to take to the roads, and accompany him apparently without thought to the consequences.

    Just as Officer Parker did. But Parker is an ethics ‘hero’ and a drunk driver all at the same time.

    • Ossie:
      1.Read the news item. There was one survivor in the car, and he testified at the trial that he and the occupants pleaded with the driver to slow down.
      2. Of course you are blaming the victims…what else would you call it? You’re saying they were culpable for getting into the car driven by someone as drunk as they were.Yes, that was a mistake. They didn’t consent to be killed, nor did they waive the just consequences for the man who killed them. In my youth, I regret to say, I was driven home by intoxicated friends and I drove home friends while intoxicated. I was very, very, careful; so were they.

      His leaving the scene, evading police and lying that his friends seemed “fine” when he ran out on them obviously played a major part in the harshness of the sentence. That showed a level of irresponsibility and callousness that went beyond the reckless driving.

      Admittedly, in Massachusetts they’d elect him Senator.

    • For everyone out there just to up date you. Mr Coffay is sitting in jail now for driving a car with a suspended license, a car with no insurance and without an alcohol interlock. Is he going to use the excuse that Judge McGann used a culture underage drinking and it not being Kevin’s fault. This is who he is not 20 he is now 28. He should have served his original sentence. Now probably he will for Violating his parole and his traffic violation. Also you know that they were aware of his condition to be able to drive or not. Maybe it could happen to your loved ones you wouldn’t be so caviler.

  5. I knew this kid my freshman year at JMU, and he was the most caring friend a guy could ask for. Whatever you needed, he was there. I don’t want to argue whether or not he was in the right or wrong; I just don’t want you guys to forget the human in the story. To hear people summarizing his entire life into one mistake, and then transforming him into an ethics case is kind of upsetting.

    • Uh, how could you argue that leaving friends to die horribly in a wreck he caused was “right”? Nobody is all good or all bad, but calling this “one mistake” is trivializing it too much for me.

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