I recall a few fist fights when I was a kid that had me angry enough to kill someone. Indeed, had a gun been readily at hand, I just might have pulled a trigger. Anger is a cheap drug. It is easy to yield to its seduction, especially when you are young and all the emotions come flooding in during the storm and stress of adolescence. So I call myself a near murderer: I would have killed, I could have killed. The lack of easy access to a gun perhaps kept me from doing something stupid.
Times have changed. Guns are everywhere these days, especially in the inner cities, where young men carry them as something akin to a badge of honor. You dissrespect someone on the streets these days, and you are as likely to get a hole in the head as a fat lip.
A client of mine was convicted of murder this week. Two eyewitnesses said they saw him walk up to another young man and shoot him four times. One bullet struck the dead man in the back of the head and exited through his eye, it was the killing shot. Another witness testified that my client told friends he’d killed the victim as part of an ongoing beef the two young men had. They’s seen one another earlier the night of the shooting at a Halloween party.
The crime of murder is among the simplest to prove: the state need only show that a person acted with the specific intent to cause death and that death resulted. A bullet to the back of the head is powerful circumstantial evidence of intent.
We attacked the identification evidence as unreliable. It was dark, one witness saw the shooting from a distance. No one remained at the scene after the shooting. Some 30 to 40 people fled, and only two trickled into the police station in the days following the shooting. The killing took place in a housing project rife with violence and the sale of illegal drugs. People were scared. One of the state’s identification witnesses has found a new life outside the project in the witness protection program.
During pre-trial negotiations, the state offered my man-child of a client a deal: he could plead to manslaughter and receive an agreed sentence of 30 years. Under Connecticut law, a person must serve 85 percent of a manslaughter conviction before parole eligibility. The prosecutor reasoned that the young man would still be shy of 50 when he was eligible to leave prison. Try selling late middle age to a kid.
So the jury convicted my client. He will be sentenced later in the summer, after a pre-sentence report has been compiled, his mother, father and those close to him interviewed, and the family of the dead man given a chance to speak about their loss. He faces a sentence of up to 60 years behind bars. Odds are he will be sentenced to something like 50 years.
I simply cannot reckon justice in terms so large. I think of the rage I felt as a teenager, and my mind turns to a couple of fist fights in which I was pulled off a another kid I could easily have killed. Would I have reasoned my way to self control if a gun were at hand? Perhaps, but I have reason to doubt it.
I no longer recall how many young men I have defended against charges or murder or other crimes of violence. Just now, I am defending several other boys accused of killing others with handguns. It seems surreal, actually, to defend a young man against accusations about conduct that is almost always impetuous, and rarely thought out. Murder, the state charges, and it seeks decades of imprisonment. Who is at thirty the person they were at eighteen? People change.
My client’s life is destroyed as a result of this guilty verdict. Yes, he lives, and that man he is accused of killing has not even the pleasure of his next breath. But spending a lifetime behind bars for an impetuous and disastrous decision made while testosterone was king seems discordant. Somehow, this week, and for the first time, I see handguns as a scourge, a lethal tool too easily exchanged and made available to young people incapable of making the sorts of judgments we would expect of those carrying guns. For the first time, I find myself wishing the laws made guns impossible to possess. My client was no member of a well-regulated militia; he was a teenager. If the jury got it right, he had too easy access to a gun. Now he will spend the better part of the rest of his life in a cage, regretting one foolish moment.
Justice? I don’t think so.