Dispatches from a Reporter's Notebook

No immunity from grief

Posted June 1, 2009
Updated June 2, 2009

When the prosecutor's voice cracked as he read a letter from the mother of a 10-year-old boy killed by a drunk driver, I knew that something unusual was happening in the courtroom. 

"We are constantly reminded of our loss," Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cruden read the words from Ludy Medina Fuentes, mother to 10-year-old Jefferson, and wife to Ruben Medina who was also killed in the crash.  "I lost a beautiful son and a great husband."

Fuentes sat on the front row of the audience just behind Cruden, quietly sobbing and holding onto her young daughter, Tiffany, as she listened to her own words of sorrow read aloud.  The drunk driver, Christine Meyers, sat across the room at the defense table also quietly weeping as the depth of the pain she had caused was exposed in the candid words.

Cruden, a veteran attorney for the state who has prosecuted drunk drivers and murderers for years, stopped in mid-sentence.  It was clear by the look on his face that he was overwhelmed, as many people in the courtroom were, by genuine grief.  His colleague, Melanie Shekita, who happened to be in the courtroom, offered to take his place.  He then passed the letter to her to read.

She read the letter clearly and steadily until she got to the part about 4-year-old Tiffany, Fuentes' daughter who survived the accident.  The child remembers seeing her father and brother covered in blood.  She remembers the color of the car that crossed the center line and hit them head-on.  It was white she told her mother repeatedly.  When she passes the scene of the accident to this day she remembers everything and calls out to her father and brother.

"Goodbye Daddy and Jefferson," Shekita read Tiffany's words, her voice now cracking under the weight of her own grief, "I love you very much."

As a journalist who covers death on a daily basis, I often find myself getting tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, especially when a child is involved.  I used to try and hide it, but no more.  What today's hearing revealed is that no one, not even the hard-nosed prosecutors who fight to send people to prison, is immune to the grief caused by real human tragedy.  Officers of the court are real people who are not all that different from the victims involved in their cases.  They have families, too, and can relate to the unimaginable pain of losing someone they love.  Personally, I think their compassion makes them better stewards of justice, not to mention better people. 

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WRAL's Amanda Lamb offers a behind-the-scenes look at what TV news reporters do, the people they meet and how their jobs affect them.