Justice, Georgia style?

Five hundred bucks and a year’s probation: That’s the going price for taking an innocent life?

In January, Rodrigo Diaz, his girlfriend and two others pulled into a Gwinnett driveway to pick up a friend to go skating. Unknown to them, it was the wrong driveway, the driveway of Phillip Sailors.

Sailors came out of his home armed with a .22 pistol. He fired a warning shot, and then, as Diaz tried frantically to drive away, Sailors fired the next shot into Diaz’s head, killing the 22-year-old Georgia Tech student.

When Lilburn police officers arrived, they arrested Diaz’ girlfriend and the other two survivors in the car, handcuffed them and held them overnight.

This week, the case was resolved when the 70-year-old Sailors pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, down from the murder charge brought by a grand jury. As part of the plea deal cut by Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, Sailors was charged a $500 fine and given a year’s probation, an outcome that the Diaz family supported.

“There is no point for him to be in lifetime in prison,” Diaz’ brother David said. “What we get from that? Nothing. Like my dad said, we don’t hold any grudge.”

I admire the forgiveness demonstrated by the Diaz family, but I cannot say that I entirely share it. As David Diaz noted, putting an elderly Vietnam veteran such as Sailors into prison for the rest of his life does no one any good. However, a small fine and probation send a dangerous message of its own, contributing to the sense that Sailors did nothing all that wrong and that others in a similar situation can act in a similar manner.

In a similar case in Michigan, a homeowner shot through his door and killed a teenage girl who had gotten in a late-night car accident and was banging on the door for help. In August, he was sentenced to a minimum of 17 years.

It’s also relevant to note that the Diaz family — immigrants from Colombia — had earlier negotiated a settlement in a civil case filed against Sailors and his insurance company. It’s possible that played a role in the outcome, but if so, that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. In some ways it becomes even more troubling: If a payment of money gets a murder charge erased, replaced with a fine and probation, we’ve reverted to some pre-medieval system of justice.

If you pull a gun on someone and use it in a recklessly fatal manner, shooting and killing an innocent person as they attempt to flee your property, as the police reports allege Sailors did, you should not get off scot-free. Using a gun on someone is serious, serious business.

Furthermore, your own misguided fear is no justification and no excuse for ending the life of another human being. As an adult, you are responsible for how you handle that fear and how you act upon it. When you choose to pick up a firearm, you become responsible for the consequences, and when you make a series of conscious decisions that end with you taking the life of an innocent person, you should face those consequences.

For the mistake of pulling into the wrong driveway, Rodrigo Diaz paid with his life. For the mistake of shooting Diaz and taking his life, Phillip Sailors paid a $500 fine.

That’s not justice.