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Ten to Twenty

06 October 2006
Friday, 1:25 AM

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.

Filed under: Personal, Philadelphia

Comments Closed (21)

1. Richard Rutter says…  |  06 October 2006 / 4:07 AM

What a shame you can't make an honest heartfelt apology part of the sentence. Obviously saying sorry shouldn't actually be a punishment, it should be an obligation of any decent human being - particularly if that human being was forced by circumstances into behaviour he knew was wrong, as his defence would have the court believe.

Maybe he gets fifteen years (that would actually be a long time in the UK - America bangs people up for far longer than Europe) but gets to come out a year early once the victims are convinced he's genuinely remorseful (beyond saying sorry in return for his freedom).

2. bearskinrug says…  |  06 October 2006 / 7:29 AM

That's bizarre — that the decision should have been left in your hands like that.

But who knows... ten to twenty years is still enough time for someone to genuinely consider how much they fucked up.

3. Rob Weychert says…  |  06 October 2006 / 7:53 AM

Rich: Yeah, our prison system is definitely a lot more severe than yours, and I usually scoff at its severity, considering the fact that the vast majority of prisoners here are locked up on drug charges. Ten to twenty years sounds like a long time for a crime like this (he’ll probably serve eighteen), but not necessarily, if you consider two things.

First, eight counts of armed robbery is nothing to shake a stick at, regardless of them being performed in rapid succession. Second, the law here states a mandatory minimum sentence of five to ten years for each count of armed robbery, which would have put him away for forty to eighty years if “mandatory” actually meant anything. I don’t necessarily support mandatory minimum sentences, but I am irked by the nomenclature being so patently false.

Kevin: There’s definitely something disconcerting about us being able to affect the sentence the way we did, but it also kind of makes sense, since we were the victims, and we were only casually empowered to lighten the sentence. It was a strange turn of events, though, considering that the prosecution usually wants victims present at the sentencing to make sure the perpetrator doesn’t get a light sentence. That kid is damned lucky he lives in a blue state, and he probably doesn’t even know how lucky he is.

4. Colin D. Devroe says…  |  06 October 2006 / 10:31 AM

Although ten to twenty years, for a nineteen-year-old, doesn't seem like a "light sentence" to me - I can completely understand your frustration.

Chances are however, he is not sorry for what he did - and he may never be. He may realize what he did was wrong but he may never be sorry.

5. Chris Griffin says…  |  06 October 2006 / 11:24 AM

I've experienced something similiar, though I was not in much peril as you were, but painful in a different way.

I caught my "friends" red-handed buglarizing my house. 2 of them I wouldn't really consider a friend, but 1 in particular I did consider my best friend at one time.

I was lucky that I showed up when I did (about 5 minutes after they got into my house). I completely caught them off guard, as I was in high school at the time and in the work for credit program which allowed me a free period from school. I didn't work that day and I came home early.

I'm also lucky that the 2 guys I didn't consider a friend didn't attack me. They just walked out of my house without saying a word.

In the end, nothing was missing, but I felt betrayed and in some sense felt I could not trust anybody anymore.

6. Rob Weychert says…  |  06 October 2006 / 12:20 PM

Colin: You may be right, but I suppose that’s the natural byproduct of a system predicated on negative reinforcement. He’s obviously a lot less sorry that he threatened lives than he is about going to prison.

Chris: That sucks. Being burglarized is usually followed by awful feelings of violation, but being burglarized by a friend—and catching him in the act—must make it even worse.

7. Dave Simon says…  |  06 October 2006 / 12:23 PM

The good citizens in the world try to sympathize with people like this, giving them excuses like the fact that they are drug addicts, etc.

The fact remains that, if this guy is pointing a gun at your friends, he's prepared to use it. Luckily, he didn't.

I know the way that being a victim of crime makes you feel violated. If he says he's sorry, or not, you'll still feel violated.

8. Pierce says…  |  09 October 2006 / 6:58 AM

I have never heard of anything like that, a group of victims being present in court and allowed to weigh in on proceedings.

I don't think I would like to be put in the position of making that decision. Either way, I would probably feel regret or guilt if I had lessened or lengthened the sentence. It's a heavy weight to put on blameless individuals. I would rather that the system just "worked" and gave sentences to criminals based on their crimes, end of story. Of course, it's never that clear cut, and judges and juries carry a lot of power one way or the other. But at least they signed up for it and have no emotional or personal involvement.

9. Rob Weychert says…  |  09 October 2006 / 9:04 AM

Pierce: We definitely weren’t comfortable being put in that position, especially since we weren’t even sure if/how our input would affect the proceedings.

As for the system “working,” well, we can all dream the dream, can’t we? I neglected to mention what a clusterfuck the whole event was. The start time was delayed about ninety minutes as the bailiff tried to find the defendant (who had been misdirected to another courtroom somewhere else in the building). And the deliberations at the bench actually consisted of the attorneys and the judge poring over law books, trying to figure out the category of the crime and the specific sentences that pertained to it. So yeah, the system doesn’t quite have its shit together.

10. Pierce says…  |  09 October 2006 / 10:16 AM

It's always a little scary watching real court proceedings. TV courtroom dramas give us an over-optimistic view of what goes on in there. It's like the West Wing versus actual political debate.

11. Joshua Lane says…  |  10 October 2006 / 10:17 AM

I doubt this kid is "sorry" at all for what he did. He's sorry he got caught. But you don't rob multiple people in a single night with an armed weapon and body armor. That's planned; and not an act of desperation due to a drug (or any other) problem.

Wow, I sound like a bit of a heartless bastard :(

12. sutter says…  |  12 October 2006 / 10:14 AM

You should have demanded that the kid be your slave when they asked you about the sentence. Then, when he robs people, he would have to give the money and drugs to you.

13. bandelin says…  |  12 October 2006 / 4:03 PM

im liberal about silly stuff like...equal rights and the environment, but anybody that sticks a gun in my face I hope fucking burns alive..I dont care about their socio-economic situation.

you guys did move into a cesspool of human worthlessness though..I guess I'm not surprised.

14. Virginia says…  |  14 October 2006 / 9:18 PM

When I first read this post a couple of weeks ago, I started responding with some questions about the value of prison, and whether a long jail sentence is going to help you, or the victim, or society in general. But I didn't post, because I haven't been the victim of violent crime, and I felt I couldn't really put myself in your shoes.

Then last night we found out that one of my girlfriend's students had been beaten into a coma - he's on life-support, and from the sounds of things probably won't ever get full brain function back. 12 hours later, the three kids who did it are out on bail. I'm just... disgusted by it.

So: I hear ya. I'm sorry you had to go through something so horrible, and I wish the guy who did it had received a sentence - or punishment - that made you feel something better than "enraged". Some things just suck.

15. Rob Weychert says…  |  15 October 2006 / 1:40 PM

Virginia: What happened to your girlfriend’s student is awful. Years ago, a close friend of my college roommate underwent a severe and thoroughly unprovoked beating, which required extensive reconstructive surgery on his face. Having something like that occur so close to home is bound to affect someone’s opinions on crime and punishment.

I should point out, though, that what really pissed me off about my case was that this guy’s remorse had everything to do with his punishment and nothing to do with his crime. And the judicial system seems more likely to perpetuate that than to change it.

16. Ian says…  |  18 October 2006 / 4:35 PM

If you really want some closure, try making a visit to the prison. Take the dude some girly mags, get to know him.
If he's a perpetual asshole, maybe your opinion will be useful at parole time.
If he's just a fucked up kid in "a cesspool of human worthlessness" you can hold hope that there's a possibility that prison's gonna make everything alright.

I've heard a lot about this story, but this portion brought the scariness to the forefront for me.

17. Rob Weychert says…  |  18 October 2006 / 4:46 PM

Ian: That’s a very interesting idea. I was thinking about writing to him, but a visit would be that much more direct, provided I had the guts to do it. You’ve got me thinking about it...

18. Chris says…  |  19 October 2006 / 2:11 PM

Do you think writing to him will earn you anything more than an expletive laden response? Even that would seem a reach.

There's no psychology you'd be able to pick up that would allow you to reach this person's soul in any significant way. Of course, you could make a go of it but the best bet is that you would end up suffering more abuse encountering this person a second time than you did in the initial attack.

The problem with wanting an apology or admission of wrong doing is that from the other point of view, you were asking for it. It would be easier to get a liar to stop believing their own lies.

That said, I'm not a pessimist. I just think you have better things to do with your time.

19. Rob Weychert says…  |  19 October 2006 / 11:30 PM

Chris: I don’t really have high expectations for writing to or visiting this guy. And I don’t necessarily expect remorse or repentance. I just want to know his thoughts on the matter, and now that he's been tried, convicted, and sentenced, I’ve got a much better chance of getting an honest answer. Contacting him won’t do me any more damage than has already been done, but it does have the potential to satisfy my curiosity.

20. Chris says…  |  20 October 2006 / 6:40 AM

In that case, I wish you the best of luck. I must admit, now I'm curious.

21. niff says…  |  06 November 2006 / 11:51 AM

wow. I totally know how you feel. When I had to go to court for the 12 year old that stole my car, he started "crying" to the judge. When the judge said that wouldn't work. His tears were gone and his attitude came back out. I felt a mix of pity for this kid who stole my car and kept in front of his parents house and no one noticed, and at the same time, I felt anger and contempt.

The sad part about all this is, they are not sorry. They would do it again, but kill you next time so they could get out of it. I find your observations so precise. Thank you.

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