Suffolk County Criminal Court is never a transformative experience. On any given day, as a norm you witness humankind s greatest pain and suffering. On a daily basis, each courtroom tells a story of suffering, greed, abuse and violence. Rarely is there a painful story told with a happy ending.
Right before Thanksgiving, I made the pilgrimage to Criminal Court that I have done thousands of times over the past thirty years. I went to support a family and a defendant who was to be sentenced for a horrific crime.
Most of my advocacy and support over the years has been for young people and adults who have made reckless choices around drugs and alcohol. In the past, my advocacy was urging leniency in support of intensive drug and alcohol treatment.
In recent times, our District Attorney and a number of Criminal Court judges have been open to creative alternatives to incarceration for drug addicts who have pled or been convicted of nonviolent crimes. At least some in the criminal justice system are getting it and are realizing that addiction is a disease and is not merely a social phenomenon.
The frustrating aspect is that every addict given the chance at transformation and redemption is not always ready to embrace change. The other real problem we face is that we have literally no long term residential placements for men and women with serious addiction problems. Managed care has literally destroyed any effective treatment for hardcore addicts.
The other major problem in this regard is that more often than not, the facilities where there are beds accessible are not open to welcoming convicted felons.
The day I went to court in November, it was a circus. The line to be screened to gain entrance to the Criminal Court was out the door. It was overly crowded that day because the Misguided Seven, who allegedly beat up and killed an Ecuadorian man from Patchogue, were in court that morning.
As I waited on line to be screened, I located that courtroom I was going to. After the screening, I walked up a flight of stairs and met the family and friends who were there for the sentencing. As I arrived, so too did the family of the young man who was killed.
The presiding judge over this very difficult case is probably one of the most compassionate persons on the bench today. At every preceding, no matter how serious, or not so serious, this judge treats everyone with respect and dignity. That Thursday was no different.
We all stood as the judge entered the courtroom. He welcomed us and the defendant was brought in in shackles, dressed up in a blue suit for his sentencing. Before his sentencing was pronounced, the judge asked the assistant district attorney if the victim s family wanted to address the court. The deceased person s mother came forward.
She is a middle aged woman with high school and college age children. In a soft but pained voice, she looked at the defendant, who is barely twenty-one, and asked him why he took her son s life. That horrific night left a family without a son and a young wife without a spouse and their two children, one who was not born yet, without a dad. She spoke about the overwhelming grief and pain that he inflicted on her entire family for a lifetime. She mentioned his parents and the pain inflicted on them. She concluded by saying that she was praying his time away would change him and make him a better man. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she said she would pray for him and then quietly left the witness stand and went back to her place in the courtroom.
The judge then allowed the defendant to face the family of his victim. Choked with emotion, he begged their forgiveness and apologized for what happened that dreadful night. He said if he could take it all back and do things differently, he would do that in an instant. He also conveyed that he was sorry and that he had learned a very painful, but powerful lesson.
After he spoke, his attorney made a passionate appeal for mercy. He spoke about the defendant s truthful and honest cooperation from the moment the victim was killed to the present moment. The District Attorney s Office confirmed his cooperation and honesty.
They had negotiated a plea " the sentence would be seventeen years in a maximum facilities state prison and five years probation, which would begin immediately upon pronouncement.
Before the judge pronounced sentence, he said he felt compassion, but not for the defendant, but rather for the victim and his family. He did acknowledge all the positive letters received, the defendant s unwavering cooperation since his arrest and his remorse. However, he did not feel compassion for the defendant and felt the seventeen year sentence was appropriate.
The defendant never fired a shot, never touched the deceased and never entered his home that night. He was the driver. He is an addict and was high on drugs that night. He never thought his decision to bring two people in his car to the victim s home would end in the victim s murder and death.
The victim is dead. He can never be brought back to life. The defendant has a chance at being transformed and changed. There is a chance that he can become a better person and someday make a positive contribution to our world.
However, on that cold November day, he was sentenced to a system that is devoid of compassion and is not interested in rehabilitation, but rather in punishment. There are no years in prison that will make that mother get over the violent way her son was murdered. However, she might experience some inner peace knowing that her son s murderer would someday possibly be rehabilitated and given a chance to make a positive contribution to our world.
Our criminal justice system does not deter violent criminal behavior, by their own numbers, they perpetuate it. The recidivism rate among convicted felons is epidemic.
The young defendant was born into a life of privilege that he squandered because of the disease of addiction. The infection began subtly in high school. He was able to mask his reckless behavior from his parents and even those closest to him. Contrary to what our schools and the system say, drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers is epidemic. It continues to be on the rise and is lethal.
When someone is drunk or high on a narcotic, they are capable of anything, even cooperating in someone s murder. Parents must become more vigilant about their children s social behavior and social choices. Good kids become drug addicts and make bad choices that cause people to die senselessly!
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