Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Waiting on a Verdict

by Katherine Scardino

Last Friday, I found myself sitting in a courtroom in another county—where I had been for the prior two weeks
trying a capital murder case.

The prosecutor did not seek the death penalty in this capital case, so if the jury finds my client guilty, he will spend the rest of his life in prison without any hope of parole. Courts have two ways to take a person’s life in Texas. We can execute by lethal injection, or we can send the offender to a Texas prison where he or she will spend the rest of his life sitting in a cell about the size of your closet. In this case, my young male client’s only possible punishment if found guilty is "life without parole."

But I was thinking of something else. I looked at this young man, age 25, a white male, who had graduated high school as a National Merit Scholar. He married his high-school sweetheart, had a set of twins and another baby—three children total—and then signed up for the Marines. He was accepted and was shipped to Iraq where he was in the Military Police. He returned to the United States only a few months before he was arrested for the murder-for-hire of a man in Surfside, Texas.

My question was: How in the world did he find himself sitting in the defendant’s chair at counsel table? . . . What happened to this man? . . . He had an adorable wife, children, supportive family, brains, and most importantly—he had opportunity. But he blew it all. In God’s name, Why???

I think I can answer that question in one word: COCAINE. His now ex-wife explained to me that during high school, he was popular, made good grades, and played sports. It was generally felt that he had a good future. She told me that he did not use drugs then, and only started using drugs after he returned home from Iraq. Did he use drugs in Iraq? Did he get hooked on drugs while serving our country in a place on the other side of the world where no one could see him or help him? She did not know. But she did know that as soon as he returned, he found a group of "friends" who loved cocaine and would do just about anything to get the next hit or snort or injection.

I know that cocaine has been called the "shame of Iraq" and that there have been court martials of soldiers who were caught selling weapons for cocaine. The only logical explanation for my young client is that he started cocaine in Iraq, and continued when he came home to the United States. Obviously, in either location, cocaine is easy to get—all it takes is money.

Hence, my client’s charge of murder in exchange for payment of money, which he used to buy more cocaine.

Going a little further than my client’s situation, I know that drugs in general are a major problem in almost every area of the United States. How can there be so many young people in prison for using drugs, or for committing a crime in order to get more drugs? Do these young people not have any family or friends who can see what is going on and help them stop ruining their lives? Do we, as parents, just sit back and assume "nothing will happen to my child"—thinking that it is just a phase and he or she will grow out of it? Have we become parental zombies who ignore all the signs because we are so busy with ourselves? And, best yet, how do we fix this problem?

I believe that our society has deteriorated to the point that we risk losing our future. I recall in my childhood a time when my family did not have to lock a door, or worry about me when I met my friends at the movies, or even think about crime in our neighborhoods. During that time in the United States, "crime" may have been high-school boys vandalizing a building. The police in these towns did not have much to do on a daily basis. But that was also a time when parents sat down at the dinner table at the end of the day with the entire family. They ate together; they discussed what was going on in everyone’s lives; they talked about their problems; they talked about church, school, and gossiped maybe about their neighbors. But they did it together as a unit, a family. That time is gone. We do not do that anymore. Children play video games about killing cops, committing robberies or other crimes and getting away with it; they watch violent movies on television—all under the same roof as the parents, who do nothing.

Now please—no angry comments about "my kid did all these things and he is now president of his own company" . . . or some such thing. I am not saying that every child who is allowed to grow up like that will turn out to be a mass murderer or a serial killer. I am saying that the habits of our lives today engender an attitude that family doesn’t matter and no one really cares what we do. It is not the best situation for a child.

Back to my client. We are sitting in this courtroom; I see him glance at me and smile. I know he feels that he is going to walk out of the courtroom a free man. I feel differently. I know how juries are and how they will convict someone whom they even remotely feel may be guilty. And, frankly, I gave a great closing argument—(second only to our famous Kelly Siegler’s closings). But even as I sat down, feeling a little smug about what I had done, I knew that it was not enough. I felt it; I sensed it. And I was right. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and my young client was sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life in a prison cell, where the highlight of his day will be feeding time at the zoo.

So sad.


Anonymous said...

User of drugs have no brain.
But the real insanity is the laws which make hurting yourself a crime.
The biggest problem with drugs are:
Childrens access to drugs'
The cirme associated with the importation and distribution of drugs
The flight of capital out of the country.

Heroin costs as much as aspirin to manufacture (pennies), but hte importation and distribution costs add 1000s of % to the price.

Would that stop someone from using? no, but they could easily afford the drug.
Making drug use legal (like alcohol is) would end the drug cartels money train.

Rose C said...

Well I completely disagree with making the drug illegal...

But that was a nicely written post. I feel very sad for him and his family.

cricket said...

A simple truth for a complex problem. Very well stated....your compassion and understanding is admirable.

Stacy Dittrich said...

Oh, Katherine...sigh

You and I would have fun with a few bottles of wine and conversations such as these...laughs

So here it goes--Thousands of men and women fight in wars and return home to their families. Not only did he make an adult choice to use cocaine, but he took it further by choosing to commit murder. He made the choice. We can blame drugs, family problems, etc. but where does the line get drawn?

Unfortunately, you make the choice you pay the consequence. I'm sure, like me, the family of the victim has little sympathy. I do feel sorry for the man's wife and child. He obviously wasn't thinking of them either...

Just my opinion!

Pat Brown said...

Actually, we don't know that the man was a scumbag and a drug user before going off to war. Can we believe his wife's knowledge was accurate? Chances are she minimized much of his behavior before he enlisted (leaving his wife with a pile of little ones)and he might have already been a criminal and a drug user. The war may have done no more than give the man freedom from family life and a better access to drugs and violence. Maybe he got home and life was just too boring.

katherine scardino said...

Folks: I want all of you to know one thing about me - I believe with all my heart that we are responsible for our own actions and our own decisions. I do not believe that we can whine and whimper about our "background", our "environment" and hide behind that when we screw up. Now - having said that - I am still a human being who has sentiment/sympathy - call it what you will - to people who can't seem to make a right decision about much of anything. What to do about those people? I have no clue. But, I do acknowledge this discrepancy in emotional responses to their choices.

Pat Brown said...

Not a personal attack, Katherine, but I guess I fail to understand the job of a defense attorney. I thought the job was supposed to be defending the rights of the accused from being railroaded by a prosecution by a distortion of the facts. If the facts prove the man is guilty of his crimes, the defense attorney should go home perfectly happy the prosecution won. Furthermore, if your client was guilty, he should have pled guilty and not wasted the court's time or the taxpayer's money.

Was that another poor decision on his part?

katherine scardino said...

Pat: Nothing personal, but I don't know what book you read about criminal defense lawyers? We are type A personalities who want to win - ask Kelly Seigler. We have rules, of course, which BOTH sides must honor - and generally, that is all the defense can do - be sure that the cops play by the rules and that the DA's play by the rules - and if all of us do that, and the jury finds my client Guilty, then this is justice the American way. And, I will leave it up to the next lawyer - appellate group - to hunt for any errors and misjudgments on my part. But, what does all that have to do with having a bit of sentiment about some kid who screwed up at every turn. Doesn't our social system have safeguards for children - to help guide them down life's path...isn't that written down somewhere? What about rehabs, CPS, church, school, and oh yes, I almost forgot - PARENTS!

Vanessa Leggett said...

Actually, it seems to me that Katherine and Pat think more alike than meets the eye.

Pat, didn’t you say pretty much the same thing in your post “How Human Beings Become Expendable”?

"Children and teens who grow up in an emotional abyss and are raised on media that devalues human life in quantity through violent television and video games show increasing signs of reduced empathy towards their families, classmates, and communities. Then these young people grow up to be teenage killers or full-grown adults who have no empathy toward anyone younger. . . . Our country needs to take a strong look at what is causing young people to become emotionally estranged from their fellow man and work hard to restore in society what is necessary for creating love and empathy in our youth and remove what is detrimental to their healthy emotional growth. . . ."


Pat, in that same article, you did warn that a defense attorney in the case you addressed would offer up some excuse for the offender's lack of empathy--but that doesn't change your bottom line, which, as I read it, was that a lack of quality time at home with family has eroded society, which is the crux of Katherine's piece, no?

Anonymous said...

Amen Vanessa - I would love to hear Pat's retort.

I bet it will have the word psychopath in it!

Pat Brown said...

First of all, Katherine, my definition above of a defense attorney in the America was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I am quite aware how our system works; it is an adversarial one and the paradigm of sides is what I believe causes so much injustice. I believe justice should be an effort to find the truth and sentence accordingly. The courtroom should not be a chess match between lawyers with truth and justice ending up the loser.

As to why someone guilty ends of needing an attorney, Vanessa, yes, I do believe there has to be an issue of upbringing that influence that person's life. However, sorry as we all may be that the criminal had a bad roll of the dice with birth parents, or community, or any other circumstance that was less that positive, this is not an issue the courts should have anything to do with. The law is the law and when one breaks it, one pays the penalty. Furthermore, by the time many of these individuals end up in a court for rape and murder, that innocent child is long gone an an evil, psycho....(hand over mouth) creature is now in its place. At this point, I will spend my time sympathizing with the innocent victims rather than being a hug-a-thug. My thinking goes like this: when the offender pleads guilty, goes out of his way to repay his victims, truly does penance and then some, THEN I will feel sorry for him. How often, Katherine, have you had a defendent say he doesn't want the family to suffer, pleads guilty, is willing to do his full time, and then, when he gets out, works without any pressure from society to repay the family in every way he can? Name me one....

Katherie Scardino said...

Pat: And, it would be great if we lived in a world where all was peaches and cream, but we do not. And, as you very well know, we all live by rules. Our rules are made by the courts - and the Supreme Court of the US said that mitigation is such an important part of the jury's consideration as to punishment that any attorney who fails to investigate the background or other possible mitigation evidence is ineffective. So, those jurists believe that the information you are scoffing as immaterial is necessary information that a jury must have and must consider.

And, one other point, the trial is not for the victim. The rules and the presentation of evidence is for/against the defendant. Everyone feels sympathy for the victim, but the trial is all about the defendant. And, if you disagree with that, you will have to take that up with the Supreme Court and our founding fathers.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"the trial is not for the victim"

There are several authors on this blog who should be required to write that phrase over and over on a chalkboard like Bart Simpson at the beginning of a Simpsons episode. ;)

katherine scardino said...

Gritsforbreakfast: Thank you. Sometimes I feel like I am trying to put a round peg in a square when explaining how the system really works. I know that everyone feels sympathy for a victm of a crime. That is a truth, but people do not like to hear that the trial is for the accused - its purpose is not to seek revenge for the harmed - as so many would like, but to seek justice for the accused - whether that is a death sentence or prison, or freedom.