Almost a year ago, on the way home from an evening at a local bar, three of my friends and I were robbed at gunpoint as I was unlocking the front door of my apartment. It was over pretty quickly and the robber made off with a modest amount of cash. As freaked out as I was by the experience, I wouldn’t say that it necessarily caused me any lasting psychological trauma, beyond the fact that I now constantly look over my shoulder. My neighborhood is no war zone, but it’s certainly no utopia either, so I guess I looked on being mugged as an inevitability which had now come to pass, much like the bike theft and car break-in that preceded it.
After robbing more than ten people in the same fashion within a week or so, the thief was caught pretty quickly and exposed as a stupid, drug-dealing, nineteen-year-old kid with a gun that was real, loaded, and backed up by body armor.
Throughout the intermittent court dates in the months that followed, I remained fairly ambivalent about the situation. The bleeding-heart liberal side of me understood that a great many people in our society are set up to fail, and the desperation that results is bound to manifest itself in this sort of behavior. On the other hand, the red-blooded American side of me could more easily paint it in black and white: “That motherfucker put a gun in my face and stole my money. Lock him up and throw away the key.” These mixed emotions sum up my indecision on the idea of justice in general, and after our guy was convicted on eight counts of armed robbery, I didn’t know quite how I would feel when sentencing day arrived.
Yesterday, I found out.
The sentencing proceeded much in the way I imagine they usually do. The attorneys on each side of the case described the wildly opposing degrees to which they believed the defendant should be punished. One of the victims made a statement, as did the defendant. And that was when—for the first time since this ordeal began on that fateful night last fall—my stomach went aflutter.
Our robber mumbled out a pathetic, desperate plea for the judge to have mercy on him. After being incarcerated for most of the last year, he couldn’t bear an extended prison term. He was young, he had a drug problem, he would turn himself around. When asked by the judge if he admitted to committing the crimes, he said—for the first time—that he did. When asked if he was sorry for what he’d done, he said he was.
The defendant sat down, and I saw red. There were three people in the court room at whom he had pointed a gun, a mere fraction of the total. The judge was not one of them. And yet the judge was the one who received an apology; a phony, coerced apology, which followed an admission of guilt that was issued only in the final hour, when there was no other choice.
This didn’t shock me, even after hearing the defense attorney’s glowing description of a fine young man for whom these crimes were an aberration. And yet, I was enraged, and I still am.
Amidst an endless period of deliberation at the bench between the lawyers and the judge, the prosecuting attorney asked the victims in attendance if we would be satisfied with a sentence of ten to twenty years in prison. We hesitantly agreed, and the sentence came down as such. We found out later that it would otherwise have carried twice as long a prison term, solidifying the irony that our presence was intended to ensure a heavy sentence. So, basically, we inadvertently helped to give our robber a huge break.
Unsurprisingly, I still don’t know how I feel about the sentence. I simply don’t know what’s fair. What I do know is that the one thing that would really give me closure on this whole mess would be an honest apology. And it doesn’t look like it’s something I’m going to get.