Richard Hensley

Jeff Carlson has been punished enough; jail time is unnecessary

Three years have passed since Julie Carlson lost her life in a tragic boating accident on Florida's east coast. Most of us remember all too well hearing that horrifying news that night and feeling sick to our stomachs about the tragedy that unfolded. This past week that tragedy was relived in a Vero Beach courtroom, and for many people it hurts as much today as it did then. I didn't know Julie Carlson, although many of my friends knew her well. I do know Jeff Carlson professionally. We've talked a couple of times and he ran for office several times. We are acquaintances, and that's about it. And although Friday he was found guilty of operating a boat under the influence of alcohol when the accident happened, it hasn't changed how I feel about him or the nightmare his family and Julie's family have lived with since that night. A judge will determine the sentence Jeff faces next month for the two misdemeanor charges a jury convicted him on Friday evening. In my opinion, Carlson has been punished enough, and I hope no jail time is required.
Sometimes an accident is just an accident - even when it's a tragedy on this scale. Alcohol definitely compounds and complicates the situation, but many of us can say there were times in our own lives when we were lucky to not be in the same situation. People disagree on what the sentencing should be - and that's fine - but in my mind I cannot imagine what good anything more could do. There was no malice and there's no doubt that Jeff loved Julie as much as any man can love his wife. It was a terrible accident. Bad choices were made, but nothing is gained by further punishment. My heart aches for Jeff, his children and Julie's family. I cannot imagine bearing such a personal tragedy. By all accounts they have done so in amazing fashion, though, and anyone who knows them admires their strength and love through this ordeal. Some online comments to stories we've written about the trial bring up legitimate points about whether someone else would face jail time under the same circumstances. Jean Claude Meus was sentenced to 15 years for nothing more than an accident when he was a truck driver and his truck collided with a vehicle, killing a woman and her child. No one accused him of drugs or alcohol. After five years he won his release, but he still was severely punished for nothing more than an accident. We can be tough on crime and still have empathy. That's possible and we must seek the better angels of our nature in tragic situations such as what the Carlson family has been through. It doesn't matter a bit whether Jeff was a city council member or a county commissioner - he shouldn't go to jail, in my opinion. Neither should anyone else in a similar incident. I hope there will be a time in the future when the pain has subsided for Julie's family. It'll always be there, but no one with a heart wants them to live consumed by that tragedy. And I hope the same for Jeff. He's lost so much but has children to raise. He's been through more hell than anyone should have to face in a lifetime. Richard Hensley is editor of Highlands Today. Email him at