Book One / 10
It was time for the judge to speak. We were assembled, after all, to hear him pronounce the court’s sentence, and although many of those who attended the hearing felt that the judgment was a foregone conclusion, they — everyone present — still needed to hear the words and to experience the moment of finality.
“It is unfortunate,” the judge began, “that some fourteen years after the tragic death of this beloved police officer we are once again attempting to bring closure to this case.” I looked at the officers pushed up against the walls, wanting to make room for as many members of the department as possible in the cramped courtroom. As though taking an oath en masse, they all stood in a similarly taught position, facing forward, straining to hear a court’s final words.
“I admire you all,” the judge continued, “for your resilience and your commitment to the legal process. Thank you for appearing here today.”
As the courtroom fell completely silent, the judge then explained how Quinley had pled guilty to murder in the first degree, and that this was an offense more serious than his original conviction. In return, he instructed, the prosecutor had agreed to recommend the low end of the standard range, 240 months with credit for time previously served.
The prosecutor had also agreed that if the court chose not to accept the parties’ agreed recommendation, then the State would not oppose Quinley’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea.
The judge looked up from his notes and gazed out into the courtroom. A sea of faces gazed back, each registering a slightly different form of injury and expectation. “In one of the letters that I received last week from individuals expressing concern about this case, one of the authors wrote to me, ‘I know you’ll do what you can’.”
The judge surveyed the faces of the officer’s family, then repeated slowly: “I know you’ll do what you can. That simple statement informs my analysis this morning,” he told them.
He then asked aloud, in a rhetorical reply to the author, “But what exactly can I do? Just what are my options?”
Returning to his notes, he began to explain the constraints that bound his decision, wanting those assembled that morning to understand not only what he could do but, more importantly, what he could not.
Only two options were available to him that day, he continued. He could accept the joint recommendation of the parties, sentence the defendant accordingly, and bring final closure to the matter for the families and friends of both individuals. Alternatively, he could decline to follow the joint recommendation. With that decision Quinley would move to withdraw his guilty plea, the State would be bound by their agreement not to oppose the motion, and the case would proceed to another long, painful, and costly trial.
Moreover, the judge continued, it would be possible once again that a jury verdict on the charge of murder in the first degree — the charge Quinley had just pled guilty to — would not be forthcoming, especially since the strength of the State’s case was now adversely affected by changes in the law since the last trial, and by the passing of time.
Finally, the judge explained, if the defendant were tried and convicted of anything less than murder in the first degree, he would be eligible for immediate release given the time in prison he had already served. Unlike the first sentencing many years ago, when the State had sought and received an exceptional sentence substantially beyond the standard range, new developments in the law had rendered an exceptional sentence unavailable now under the circumstances presented in this case.
“I am convinced at this time,” the judge announced in conclusion, “that if I were to reject the plea agreement and cause this case to go to trial, the end result may indeed be a resolution far less palatable than the one recommended to me now. Accordingly,” he finished, “I will follow the joint recommendation.”
He then announced the terms of the sentence, and the attorneys presented the final order for his signature and entry with the court. Before leaving the bench, however, the judge looked up once more from the papers in front of him and turned this time to Quinley himself, meeting the man’s eyes.
“Your attorney wrote in her presentence report, Mr. Quinley, that you look forward to establishing a relationship with your daughter who was born two months after your arrest. This statement,” the judge said to Quinley, standing just a few feet in front of him at the bar, “hit me like a sledgehammer.”
He then spoke quietly of the children of the slain officer, who would never again experience their father walking through the door at the end of the day, a father whose permanent absence was now their only marker of his former existence in their lives.
“None of us can change the past, Mr. Quinley, but you at least have a future. Do something positive with it,” the judge urged Quinley. “Do something to earn the future you have.”
He then rose quickly and left the bench, leaving the defendant, the attorneys, and all who came to hear the final sentence with either hope or a heavy heart.
Following the division of emotions that defined their alliances, two groups now formed, and through the small path between them Quinley and his counsel made their way out of the courtroom.
In the presentence materials submitted to the first trial judge many years earlier, Officer Anthony’s wife had included several color photocopies of photographs taken of her husband with his young children. In one photograph the officer is seen outdoors dressed in a light jacket and Stetson-type hat. In his arms he holds one of his sons, whose face looks at the camera with wide open eyes. The officer’s own eyes are softly closed. Appearing almost in prayer, he kisses his son’s cheek as it presses against his father’s warm face. It is an almost singular image of paternal pride and beauty. It is also an image of an experience that Quinley as a small boy most likely never had with his own father.
In the weeks leading up to this hearing I had observed the sharp distinctions between the officer’s full life and loving family — created then left behind — and Quinley’s life with a struggling, possibly abusive family unable to teach their son how to work with the world, unable to care for him or teach him to care for others. I had been reminded of the cycles of dysfunction and abuse that run through generations in a family, but also of the cycles of love and affection when those are the values that dominate.
It was not clear today whether Quinley, when given that chance in a few years to be a father, would even know where or how to begin. Perhaps the best example, the best model, had been the very man whose death he’d been instrumental in causing.
Had Quinley learned something elemental and essential about how to engage in life in the years he had spent in prison? Would he walk out of prison as an adult and a father different fundamentally in his commitment and responsibility to others from the way he had walked into prison as a very young man, the son of a young father, himself disabled in that crucial role?
We might not know for another fourteen years, enough time for Quinley to finish the seven years remaining in his new sentence, then spend a few years creating another life.
It was not as easy as saying the choice was his. At the age of 31 he was, as we all are, some unknowable combination of what we were taught, what we later teach ourselves, the effects of either encouragement or rejection that meet our attempts at engaging with this world, and our final resolve to work within our societies without sacrificing the crux of our own humanity.
The judge had given Quinley a second chance. His own attorneys believed he would succeed. The best everyone in the courtroom could now do, however unlikely, was to adopt the wisdom that urges a turn to the offender of the other cheek, and hope that the hand once raised against it understands finally how to reach out for help rather than strike another blow.