House Rep. Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach says he will ask Gov. Charlie Crist to commute the sentence of a man sentenced to 20 years after the death of his infant daughter.
In 2007, as a rookie representative in the Florida House, the first piece of legislation Gibbons passed was a bill making it a crime to leave any child younger than 6 alone in a motor vehicle for more than 15 minutes. The law also set the maximum punishment in cases in which the child is injured at five years in prison.
The bill was provoked by the case of Antonio Balta, a Peruvian horse groomer whose 9-month-old daughter, Veronika, died of hyperthermia after being left alone in a car at Gulfstream Park in 2004.
A few months earlier, a dentist in Boca Raton left his 3-year-old son in his car for three hours in July and was sentenced to 10 years' probation.
"You hate to see inconsistencies in our judicial prudence like that," Gibbons tells the Juice. "I'm not going to blast our justice system, but obviously he didn't have the same kind of representation. You have to look at the fact he's a person of color. You have to look at his economic level."
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Had Gibbons' law passed two years earlier, Antonio Balta would already be out of prison by now. "The law can't be retroactive," Gibbons explains. "Everything about these cases is tragic."
Gibbons points out that to keep Balta in prison -- away from his two other children and the rest of his family -- costs the state about $50,000 every year. So if he serves out his entire sentence, Balta will have cost Florida taxpayers more than $1 million. "And when he gets out prison, he's going to be deported," Gibbons says of the Peruvian national. "He has skills. He has other kids. Why are we spending a million dollars to keep this man locked up? Who is that helping?"
He adds: "We're spending money on adjudication and not education."
Gibbons says he intends to ask Crist to release Balta before the governor leaves office. "You hope talking about a case like this can raise public awareness," he says. "It can remind people to look before you lock."