A Just Judge

Queen Elizabeth once famously referred to 1992 as the annus horribilis, one upon which “[she would] not look back with undiluted pleasure.” Among other calamities, it was the year of Andrew and Fergie’s separation, of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips’s divorce, of explosive revelations which set the already on-the-rocks marriage of Charles and Lady Diana hurtling towards the ash-heap of history, and to top it all off, the year that Windsor Castle burned down.

Right about now, I’m trending (see how woke I am?) in that direction with regard to my feelings about 2019. Not sure that the magnitude of disasters that have beset the denizens of Chateau Right are of monarchical or even royal proportions, but there has been one, after another, after another, and it will live in my memory as, if not the annus horribilest of my life, probably one of the top five.

I seem to have had my butt glued to the dentist’s chair for an unconscionably long time this year. Root canals (some of them re-dos of previous ones). Gum surgery. Crowns. It’s a good thing I like my dentist (been going to the same practice for over fifty years; I’d rather change my gynecologist than my dentist), and that he’s very competent. One of the cars (there are two, aged ten and eleven–so I guess, together, they can drink, smoke, vote, and own a gun (for now) in any State in the union) decided to demonstrate its independence by crapping out on me, miles from home, and requiring extensive repairs. My best friend’s cancer has recurred, and another very good friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve had a couple of (so far looking like minor) health scares, myself. After a year of no coal-mine-related house subsidence to speak of, we had a few instances that required work and remediation. My step-daughter’s long-standing relationship fell apart. I lost a cherished friend through (I’m pretty sure) no fault of my own. Mr. She’s health, which has been failing for a few years, got substantially worse.

On a brighter note, I suddenly found myself, to alternate feelings of bemusement and hilarity, on the front lines of the SJW wars in the knitting community (don’t laugh; they are real and meaningful), when I was “canceled” on Ravelry for two months for making “triggering” and unwelcome comments which the moderators and PTB’s believed showed innate privilege on my own behalf, and staggering insensitivity to “survivors of violence” on theirs. It was in the midst of a conversation about, among other things, surviving assault and violence, and I wrote frankly about my experiences, apparently triggering some readers, and making me wonder, as I have before, how we’re ever supposed to have conversations about difficult things if we’re not allowed to mention the difficult things we’re supposed to be having conversations about.

My comments on Ravelry were about my stepson, and about my feelings after he was assaulted, and after he died. Apparently though, I’m not permitted to voice my thoughts among a group of (mostly) women who were describing sexual assaults they said were perpetrated on them, because I wasn’t actually the one murdered. (Sam, unfortunately, was unavailable for comment.) So I did the best I could, but I guess the fact that I wasn’t the actual “murderee,” combined with my “privilege” and my “rudeness” in “triggering” the assembled company, did me in. Go figure.

That brings us to October 31, 2019. Halloween. And the inevitable wondering about whether life was going to deal me yet another 2019 “trick” or if, finally, my luck had changed. The preponderance of evidence leading up to the date pointed in one direction; but I am nothing if not an incorrigible optimist, so I couldn’t help hoping for a dies mirabilis, to act as a counter to the rest.

You see, October 31, Halloween, was the date set by the Court, in its wisdom, for the sentencing of Sam’s murderers. They’d pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and several related charges, and one of them had an agreed-upon sentencing of 5-10 years followed by lengthy probation. So the only matter at issue was the sentencing of the other, more seriously charged individual.

Apparently (I’m not a legal scholar, so this is a layperson speaking), the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has two sentencing ranges for third-degree murder. The first one is something like 7-24 years, and the second one is 20-40 years (those are minimum-maximum incarceration times). The judge has great flexibility in determining the imposition of the sentence, and takes into account prior criminal history, aggravated circumstances, intent, and a bunch of other stuff that loses me and that, anyway, I don’t want to think about.

The District Attorney had done a terrific job of building the case, aided by the Pittsburgh Police Detective who was on the scene, arrested the miscreants, and stayed involved until the end. Sam’s family owes them an immense debt for their competence, their caring, their attention to detail, their humanity and their diligence. The DA asked for and hoped the judge would impose a sentence at the higher end of the lower scale; something like 14-24 years.

Sam’s family had had second thoughts (as I suspect most such families do) about whether we should have advocated acceptance of the guilty plea from both of them. Was third-degree murder a serious enough charge to see this criminal put away for a good long time? Were we better off trusting the Judge to see justice done? Or should we have put the matter in the hands of a jury? Would the murderer get off with a slap on the wrist? I didn’t know until it was over just how much those thoughts, and those questions, were eating at me, and how much they’ve affected me over the course of the last several months.

So, at 8AM on October 31, Sam’s sister and I presented ourselves in the Witness Room at the Courthouse, where we met with the “Victim Advocate,” (God bless the Commonwealth of PA, which apparently does acknowledge our right to feel violated by what was done to Sam, even if the knitwits on Ravelry do not), and the District Attorney. Shortly thereafter, we were shown into the courtroom, which was populated by several others, most of whom may have been related to the defendants; I don’t know.

The Judge entered. A tiny lady bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ellen deGeneres, and smothered in her judicial robes. “You’ll like her, she’s very direct and has a lot of common sense,” the victim advocate had told us.

The proceedings took about an hour. The DA made his case. The defendants’ attorneys spoke. Somewhere in there, I began to feel as if I were witnessing a nomination for a couple of “Outstanding Citizen of the Year” awards. Broken childhoods. Challenges early in life. Gender dysphoria. Mental illness. All seemingly offered as mitigation for such a heinous crime. Not sure how some of these public defenders sleep at night. Lord, it was hard to listen to.

The mother of one of the defendants spoke. I have no idea what she said. I hold no animus against her. Poor lady, she’s probably hurting too.

Then, it was Sam’s sister’s and my turn to make our “victim statements.” I went first. I’d already provided a written statement but chose not to read it. I had no notes and just winged it. “Are you Francis’s stepmother,” they asked. “His name is Sam. His family calls him Sam,” I said.

Here’s approximately what I said (trigger warning):

I thank the Court for the opportunity to speak. You know, I’ve never thought of myself as a “victim” or as a “survivor” of violence before, so this is new to me. But I’ll try not to waste too much of the Court’s time.

I’ll just say that I’ve definitely had some thoughts and feelings that I’d never have had, if the horrible circumstances that we are deliberating today had never occurred. For instance, I think about what it feels like to bash someone else in the head over and over and over until he dies. And I wonder which blow killed Sam. The first one? The last one? The hardest one? The most well-placed one? The cumulative effect of all of them?

And I wonder what Sam felt, while this was happening. When did he stop feeling? What was he thinking about while his head was being beaten to a pulp?

Sam’s father isn’t here today. He doesn’t know I’m here. He has dementia. Quite often, he doesn’t remember what happened to Sam. And he asks me where Sam is, and why Sam doesn’t call us or come to see us.

Sometimes, I lie. And I tell him that Sam is very busy. But that he loves us, and I’m sure he’ll call and come to see us soon.

Sometimes, if I think I should, I tell Sam’s father the truth. And when I do, I relive the horror, again, and again, and again.

But it is worse for Sam’s father. Because every time he hears it, he is hearing it, and processing it for the first time. Then he forgets again. A blessing. For a time.

The real victim here is Sam. But he can’t speak for himself, so I’m going to try to speak for him.

Sam was a gentle person. We’ve heard about the challenges of gender dysphoria and mental illness in the defendant’s lives, and how they should mitigate the sentence. Sam had those challenges too. But he didn’t use them as an excuse to hurt, or kill others. He was a gentle and kind person.

Sam would not want revenge. I think he would want justice.

We live in a civil society, bound by laws. And those laws state that perpetrators of heinous crimes must be punished for them. The two individuals here today perpetrated the most heinous crime one person can commit on another: they deprived him of his life.

I ask the Court to impose the harshest sentence that it deems just, on these individuals. And if it does, I will not feel joy. I will not feel satisfaction. I will not feel vengeful. I will simply feel that justice has, at last, been served.


For Sam.

That was me. Then Jenny spoke. Her statement was so heart-wrenching I can’t even. But she ended with a plea that “mercy” if it was to be extended in this proceeding, be extended to Sam’s family, and particularly to his eleven-year-old niece, who’d grow up without Uncle Sam in her life, and who’d never know his sweetness, his kindness his generosity, or his off-beat and goofy sense of humor.

Then, the defendants spoke. Praeteritio.

And the DA again, reminding the judge that the more seriously-charged defendant had, when Sam ran upstairs and locked himself in the bedroom to escape the assault, gone down to the basement, retrieved a pickax, and broken down the door so he could continue the beating. He again asked for the Judge to consider sentencing at the higher end of the lower scale.

Finally, it was the Judge’s turn. She started with the defendant who’d agreed to a 5-10 year sentence, followed by probation, she explained that in great detail, and then enumerated the ways in which this defendant must stay away from Sam’s family forever until the end of time.

And then she moved on to the second defendant.

And the lady I will forever think of as “Maximum Beth,” threw the book at him; she told him that waffling about “regretting things that happened” was a fiction. “You did this,” she said. “You caused this.” She gave him the same set of “no contact” restrictions as the other one. And explained his sentence.

The ultimate for third-degree murder in Pennsylvania. Minimum of 20 years. Maximum of 40.

God Bless her.


For Sam.

Hope lives.

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