As many times as I sit in criminal courtroom and watch a judge sentence someone in a murder case, I am amazed to be a part of the raw human drama. It unfolds like a blanket slipping in between the legal arguments and the formality of the Superior Court like a sharp object jabbing at your emotions.
This week I watched a Wake County Superior Court judge sentence three men to long prison terms for their part in an armed robbery and murder of a 21-year-old man. None of the three men pulled the trigger. Another man had been convicted earlier of that unforgivable deed. One of the three men immediately took off when the victim was shot. The other two men robbed the dead man's apartment of a safe which they loaded into their car while the victim lay bleeding on the floor.
The judge listened to the crying mother of the victim who clutched her son's picture tightly and told the defendants that she would never forgive them. She looked directly at the three men and pointed at them as she spoke loudly, in circles, repeating her grief like a mantra, over, and over again. He listened to family and friends of the defendants who talked about how they were good boys, boys who would never hurt anyone, boys with goals and a future. He listened to the teenagers themselves. One wore his best Sunday suit and spoke sincerely about the pain he knew he had caused. He apologized to the victims' family, to his family, to the judge. The other in a jail jumpsuit read a carefully crafted letter and also apologized for his bad choices.
But in the end, the lack of compassion for the dying man is what the judge zeroed in on. He said through all the tears and the sincere words spoken that day, it was the victim left alone to die on the floor that spoke the loudest. It was the thought of three human beings turning away from a wounded man that compelled the judge to sentence them to serious prison terms.
"There's a little bit of good in the worst of us," the judge said, "and a little bit of bad in the best of us. This was the bad."