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The limits of justice

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    Friday, October 4 2013 3:43 PM EDT2013-10-04 19:43:45 GMT
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DOWNTOWN MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

Cries of injustice echoed through the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center Tuesday after former Memphis Police officer Alex Beard received only a six-month jail term for vehicular homicide.

Many felt the sentence was too lenient considering a teenager and her mother died in the fatal two-vehicle Aug. 26, 2012 crash.

MORE: Former MPD officer Alex Beard accepts plea deal

But, did Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich really have a choice in making a deal with Beard?

We heard their angry words. We saw their frustration with an outcome they had no input into and no choice but to accept.

Yet, the feelings of despair family and friends of 13-year-old Mackala Ross displayed at 201 Poplar is a familiar one. For many families of crime victims wishing for closure often doesn't make it come true.

On a tumultuous day of disappointment, Michael Ross' family and friends verbally fired back at a justice system they felt had failed to put them on equal footing with a man who pled guilty to taking the lives of two family members, at a price to him of only six months in prison.

"Now he going to go have his family with his little wife, Ross said. "He's going to be able to cradle his baby. Rock his baby and love his baby. But, we will never be able to do that again with Mackala. He asked for this and she agreed to it. She could have done better than that. She could have done better than that."

The publicly unpopular plea bargain settlement between Shelby County prosecutors and Beard, who pled guilty to four counts of vehicular homicide and aggravated assault in the deaths of Mackala and her mother, 53-year-old Delores Epps, while on duty last year has raised criticism as an example of judicial injustice.

As FOX13 News found out by talking with legal experts on Wednesday, if there is blame for the perceived unjust outcome the root of the problem was crafted in the chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville, what they put on the books, regarding judicial guidelines in sentencing,  heavily leans toward lighter sentences for those, like beard, with no prior record.

"The Legislature says that on a D felony, no matter what it is, wether it's a case where someone's been killed, in this case vehicular homicide, that the alternative forms of sentencing should be looked at," said Arthur Horne III, defense attorney.

"The defendant's background makes a difference," said Tom Henderson, Shelby County Assistant District Attorney. "The amount of proof makes a difference. We're also bound by the laws of the State of Tennessee regardless of what we think should happen. If it can't legally happen, we can't make it happen. Every case we get is different. The facts are different and every individual is different."

"The most that we would have gotten if we had proceeded to trial, and if a jury had convicted him as charged, was going to be six  years," DAG Weirich said. "There was a very strong likelihood given the facts, given the law, that the judge could have sentenced him to straight probation."

"He pled to the maximum," said Leslie Ballin, Beard's attorney. "A judge could have said yes to full probation, no probation at all, or require that he do one year and then be placed on probation."

So, where does all this leave the distraught Ross family? Well, they're left with a community's sympathy and the bitter lessons of a complicated judicial process.

"No one can do anything to heal the hurt that this family has suffered," said Mayor A C Wharton "I want to make certain that's understood."

"Look, if I had a family member that was taken away by somebody's hand, by committing a crime, I would want as much punishment as can be," Ballin added. "But, vengeance is not part of justice."

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