Steer to kill
"Help me!" the 16-year-old girl cried out in terror as she was laying on the road, her legs crushed beneath the tires of a truck.
Passersby screamed at the driver to move off the girl, but he instead moved the truck forward and knocked over a motorbike a witness had placed in the way. He then backed up over the girl and stopped to shift gears before running over her a third time and driving off.
The victim, Nguyen Thi Hoi, was rushed to the hospital but succumbed to her injuries and died.
The Ho Chi Minh City People's Court has just sentenced the 25- year-old driver, Dang Huu Anh Tuan, to eight years in prison for the murder that occurred on May 14 last year. He was also ordered to pay VND75 million (US$3,933) in compensation to the victim's family.
The decision has outraged the public and local lawyers who feel that Tuan's act was a cold-blooded killing and deserved at least a life-sentence.
"I am still horrified by the sound of [the girl's] bones crushing under the huge vehicle, the girl's desperate waves for help in pain and Tuan's cold face," said Le Phuoc Tuoi, an eyewitness who had tried to help the girl before chasing down the fleeing truck driver.
On March 30, 2010, Nam Dinh Province People's Court sentenced a taxi driver to nine years in jail for hitting a woman and dragging her to her death for 1.4 kilometers in November last year.
On November 15, 2009, Nguyen Viet Hai, 26, driver of the An Hoa International Trading Joint Stock Company, was carrying passengers in his taxi at around 10 p.m. when he hit Dang Thi Minh Loan at the Mac Thi Buoi - Quang Trung crossroads.
Loan was stuck under the seven-seater but Hai didn't stop even after the passengers told him to do so, according to the indictment. He only stopped 1.4 kilometers away to remove the body before he continued the journey.
However, he was only charged with violating road regulations because the board of judges said the postmortem examination failed to identify when she died.
In April 2007, Tay Ninh Province People's Court handed down a 20-year sentence against Huynh Van Nhan for deliberately running over a man he had hit with his tractor.
According to the indictment, Nhan seriously hit the man at night and decided to run over the victim for the second time to avoid having to provide support to the disabled victim for his whole life.
In 2003, a truck driver was accused of deliberately backing up his truck to kill two people he had accidentally hit in a traffic accident in HCMC's Cu Chi District.
Reading the sentence on May 24, judges at the court said that Tuan's clean record and his immediate payment of VND20 million in compensation were reasons for the lenient sentence. The HCMC Prosecutor's Office appealed the sentence on March 29 and requested a stiffer sentence for Tuan. The office had proposed jail terms of between 11-12 years at the outset of the initial trial.
At the trial, Tuan admitted he was aware of what he was doing, and he heard the passersby telling him to back up the truck to save the girl. He said he didn't do so because he was "too confused" and "frightened."
Sadly, Tuan's case is not the only one. Truck drivers often say it's better to kill someone in an accident than injure them. The logic, half urban legend, half real, is that those responsible for injuries have to pay compensation for the rest of a victim's life, while those who kill someone in a traffic accident only make a one-off payment and possibly a short jail sentence.
"˜Brutality of humanity'
Hoi was run over on Luy Ban Bich Street in Tan Phu District as she returned home from work at a nearby café to her house in a small alley on Thoai Ngoc Hau Street, where she shared a two-square meter space with her poor family.
Hoi's mother is currently serving a 15-year sentence for drug smuggling. Observers have been quick to point out that her sentence for drugs was nearly double what
Tuan got for the murder of a young girl. Analysts have also wondered whether Tuan would have gotten off so easy had Hoi's mother been a business owner or a prominent member of society.
Her 77-year-old grandmother Nguyen Thi Mai said the family had been unable to visit her daughter since Hoi's death as they are unable to afford bus tickets.
Hoi's father, a migrant worker, has taken up with another woman when his wife was sentenced
Hoi and her 13-year-old sister had hawked lottery tickets for a living before Hoi got a job at a café a year before her death.
Nguyen Thi Mai, grandmother of Nguyen Thi Hoi, in their two-square-meter house in HCMC's Tan Phu District. Hoi died last May after a truck driver ran over her three times before running away.
"We had to place her coffin on the sidewalk during the funeral because the house and the alley were too small," Mai said, adding that they had to borrow illegal high-interest loans of VND60 million from shady loan sharks for the funeral.
The family still owed VND40 million in loans after using Tuan's VND20 million in compensation.
Mai was still visibly shaken as she discussed the event, more than a year after it happened.
"Hoi didn't die because of a traffic accident, she died because of the brutality of humanity. It would have been less miserable if she had just lost her legs; at least then I could still see her everyday."
But the grandmother was also full of compassion: "I don't wish the defendant to be in jail for one or two years more. I only want the verdict to be carried out soon so that I have money to pay my debt. I won't appeal."
Truck drivers were quick to condemn Tuan's actions, as the public pointed its finger at truck-driver culture and legal loopholes that allow motorists to get away with murder.
Critics have pointed out the gross-double standard, wondering if murderers should get off the hook easier than violent criminals who only disable their victims.
Vuong Minh Hoa, a truck driver in the central province of Quang Nam, said drivers should always help victims of traffic accidents. "I was frustrated by Tuan's behavior. It was inhuman and should receive an extremely strict penalty.
"Tuan's act was so brutal," said Thanh Nien reader Tran Quang Dieu of HCMC. "What was his motivation? Was it his own coldness or is it because truck owners told him to follow the compensation principle?
Reader Doan Hong Phu of the southern province of Dong Nai echoed Dieu and other readers who said that the principle was followed by many drivers. "This is selfish and inhuman thinking," he added. Some observers have pointed out that drivers are pressured to carry out orders ludicrously and most believe they can fall back on truck owners to pay any one-time compensation for accidents.
RULE OF LAW
Lawyer Nguyen Van Hau of the HCMC Bar Association confirmed that Vietnamese laws do in some ways favor drivers held responsible for deaths in traffic accidents over those held responsible for serious injuries.
He said drivers would have to take care of people they injured until the end of their lives if the victims become disabled and are unable to work. But they only have to pay once, and possibly do a little jail time, if the victims die.
He also said procedures for compensation in fatal cases were also simpler than those in injury cases.
But he was clear as to what the law was getting wrong:
"There should be higher compensation in fatal cases," he said.
Huynh Van Nong, another attorney from the association, said the compensation in fatal cases was "almost nothing in comparison with damages that the victims and their relatives suffer."
"Authorities should review compensation practices in fatal cases to ensure humanity and the respect of human lives," he said.
Drivers also know that if they are slick about killing a road-accident victim, they'll only face minimal road rule violation penalties and escape murder charges altogether, so long as police find no proof.
"In reality, finding witnesses and corroboration that the driver deliberately murdered a road accident victim is extremely tough," said Nong.