Judas and the Judge
Tomorrow George Leniart will be sentenced as a capital felon. The state did not seek the death penalty. Why? Because the state had no body, no tangible proof that there was, in fact, a murder. But it went ahead and charged Mr. Leniart anyhow. It did so based on the word of several jailhouse informants. It did so by arguing to a jury that a prior guilty plea to a rape means he must have raped again, only this time killing and disposing of the body such that no sign of it has ever existed, anywhere.
The sentence the court must impose by statute is life without the possibility of parole. The court has no choice. Oh, it can stack some time on top of the only life that Mr. Leniart will live and call it justice. But such concurrent time is meaningless, a fool's errand.
The courtroom will be filled with thrill seekers of a different sort, all coming to see the hammer fall. The press will be there. Law enforcement officers will be there; indeed, lawmen have already thrown themselves a banquet to congratulate themselves on getting a conviction in this case. They believed Mr. Leniart to be a bad man. So they congratulate themselves on having Mr. Leniart behind bars for life, but the sad fact remains: the lawmen failed to solve the murder. They have no body to show the grieving family after 15 years of looking. What they have is half a case. What they have is the hope this speculative mound of evidence means what they say it does.
That the case was enough to convict Mr. Leniart does not surprise. Three jailhouse snitches came to court and ran their mouths about the things they contend Mr. Leniart told them. The stories do not match. The boy who was with Mr. Leniart and the victim the night she was last seen testified about what he did that night. He testified that he was only trying to mess with his father's head when he confessed to killing her.
Mr. Leniart sought to call an expert on jailhouse informants and the powerful pressures brought to bear on hopeless men locked in cages. The expert has testified before Congress, written scholarly articles and a book; she teaches law. But the judge muzzled her. The jury never heard a word of what she had to say. The trial judge concluded that it was within the province of the jury to know what kinds of games lawmen play with the heads of those locked out of sight and mind. On what planet do ordinary people know the look and feel of a cell?
Oh, that the judge were as sparing with the state's evidence. She permitted a woman who claimed she had been raped by my client just months before the victim in my case went missing. This woman was a drunken child at the time of the alleged rape. She described being strangled to the point of passing out, and awakening to see my client on her still. Armed with this vivid image and an isolated alleged comment to an informant, the state argued that the missing victim in this case was killed in just the same way as the all-too-real victim was raped and assaulted -- by a strangulation, only this time gone too far.
I argued that my client could not get a fair trial if evidence of the prior bad act were admitted. All that linked the living victim and the missing person was some chatter from a jailhouse snitch. No physical evidence corroborated the claim. The jury was invited to speculate that Mr. Leniart killed one girl in the same way he had assaulted another.
The rub in this case is that the judge slated to try the case was by consensus of all the lawyers involved in the case unlikely to admit the evidence of the prior strangulation. Had that judge tried the case, my client would today be free. But the judge got sick, and a different judge, this one recently a prosecutor, donned the robe. The consensus now was that the evidence would be admitted. It was. The result is mandatory life without possibility of parole for a man convicted because of allegations of a prior bad act. Forgive me if I call this something less than justice.
Tomorrow the courthouse will fill with groupies looking for a show. We have decided to say little and to save our words and hopes for an appeal and a new trial. When I look at the judge I will end such remarks as I make with the simple story of Jesus and Judas at the last supper. As Jesus and the disciples supped, Jesus knew Judas' intent. One of the other disciples turned to Jesus to ask what was the matter. Jesus looked to Judas and said: "That thou doest do quickly." So it will be from my lips to the judge's ears.
Impose the sentence you must, judge. The die is cast and was cast as a consquences of decisions made at trial about what a jury can and cannot hear. We do not expect justice. We expect a life sentence. Impose it and do so quickly. Let's end this charade so that we can seek justice in another court on another day.