It didn’t take long for Cherokee County residents to express their displeasure when the plea arrangement in the Trisha Catron case was announced late last week.

Within hours, the Press began fielding phone calls and e-mails, with the snail mail arriving as early as Monday. It seems that citizens are outraged at what they perceive as a slap on the wrist for this chronic offender.

Catron will spend the next five years on probation. She received a deferred judgment, which means if she can keep her face detached from the bottle (or at least refrain from driving after attachment occurs) for that period of time, and if she speaks to a few victim impact panels, her record will be wiped clean – as if none of this ever happened.

As if, some might say, Andrea Beth Doyle had never existed.

An informal poll conducted last week by the Press indicates the vast majority of area residents do not believe justice was served. And many people are conveying the opinion that someone else besides Catron will pay the price.

Catron, who had been partying on that fateful evening in July 2003, was drunk when her vehicle crossed the line and collided with a car driven by 21-year-old Doyle. Catron herself just turned 21 in December, which means she wasn’t just breaking the law by driving drunk; she was also drinking alcohol illegally. Even Catron’s friends – who say they wouldn’t have gotten in a vehicle with her that night – say she unlawfully imbibed quite often. In fact, she did it again when she was out on bond, and wound up with another DUI. As part of the plea agreement, however, that charge has been summarily dropped.

Catron did spend a few months cooling her heels in county lockup, for which area drivers can feel a measure of relief and gratitude. But that inconvenience pales in comparison to the magnitude of her crime. Doyle’s parents pointed out the irony and the contrast: They received a life sentence of being without their cherished daughter, while Catron can simply pick up where she left off.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that although Catron did technically plead guilty, she has shown no apparent remorse for what she did, and at times has even seemed to make light of the situation. A brief bout of weeping while the victim’s father addressed the court hardly qualifies as contrition.

It would have made a difference to the Doyle family – just as it would have made a difference to the family of another victim killed not so long ago under similar circumstances.

The Catron case is almost a mirror of what happened with Jana Hightower, who got boozed up before putting her two young children in the car and getting behind the wheel. An earlier drunken excursion had almost cost Hightower her own life; this one took the life of Gregg Glass, and could have also taken her own children and Glass’s stepson.

Like Catron, Hightower never expressed regret. Unlike Catron, she whined to the court about how her family “deserved” to have her with them. Catron was at least smart enough to avoid making such comments. (The same can’t be said for a member of Catron’s family, who sought to besmirch the victim in public, and anonymously on the Press Web site – though we’re well aware of the identity of this remarkably calloused and punitive individual.)

In the Hightower case, as in the Catron case, the victim’s family never sought vengeance; all they ever wanted was a sincere apology. They never got it. They never got real justice, either, although Hightower – like Catron – was also caught trying to drink and drive again while her case was wending its way through court.

Regrettably, Catron probably got lucky, in a legal sense, when her case seemed destined for perpetual mistrial. A sticking point for some observers may have been problems with the chain of evidence. Her blood was taken immediately after the crash, but a law enforcement officer stored it in his refrigerator. Catron’s attorney argued the officers’ kids could have tampered with the evidence. That’s highly unlikely, and in a real sense, there’s no question about Catron’s guilt. But nevertheless, for some, the blood issue could raise an element of doubt, thus creating problems for obtaining a guilty verdict from a jury.

The prevalence of cases like Catron’s and Hightower’s have established a frightening trend in this part of the state – enough to prompt Victims Impact Panel Director Penny Gooch to comment: “It’s like we’re giving up in Northeastern Oklahoma.” She also said, “When people die, it matters,” and she should know: She lost her own beloved twin sister, Paula, to a drunken driver.

At least the public has consistently made its collective opinion known – to a degree that Hightower moved out of the county, and is now someone else’s problem. Catron’s family has apparently considered following suit. And as cold as it may sound, that’s the best idea they’ve had yet. Good riddance, and the sooner, the better.

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