1.8 Victim Impact

Book One / 8

The final sentencing of Ervin Quinley came before the court on a Tuesday morning following the long Memorial day weekend.  It was the first matter on the court’s calendar after a brief civil hearing to finalize a class action settlement.

The judge had been on vacation the week before the sentencing, and I had been working alone in chambers on all the matters that refuse to honor a court’s recess.  Late in the afternoon on Friday my email inbox began to fill rapidly, just as I was beginning to put files away and preparing to close the office for a holiday weekend whose arrival might mean the advent of calmer summer days.

I looked more closely at the list as the number of emails multiplied.  Each item had a subject line that heralded:  State v. Quinley.  Each was marked for priority.

Dreading the type of emergency that so frequently arises at the last moments of the work week, I glanced first at the clock – succumbing momentarily to the idea that if it were late enough I could avoid the letters – whatever they were – until first thing Tuesday morning.

State v. Quinley, however, was a case that had become increasingly pressing as a possible resolution short of another hard trial had come within the parties’ reach.  Negotiations between the State’s attorneys and the defendant’s had been lengthy; the family had been reliving the pain of the events, and the media had reawakened the community’s sleeping memory of the city’s anguish in the days following the shooting of a police officer.

Much was at stake not only for Quinley but also for the court and counsel, and for the family of the victim.  So much effort had already been directed at making no mistakes this time that no chances could now be taken with the successful conclusion of the sentencing that loomed at the end of the weekend I was about to begin.

Not wanting to risk the danger of a situation about which both I and the judge would want as much advance notice as possible, I tentatively opened the first item in the list and began to read.  The letter was a carefully crafted introduction to a series of victim impact statements, as the courts refer to them.  The State’s lead prosecuting attorney had received them, and was forwarding them to defense counsel and to the court for the judge’s consideration.

The prosecutor began by stating that although he was bound to forward these letters for the court’s consideration at sentencing, he did not mean to indicate through them that he no longer supported the parties’ agreed sentencing recommendation.

He concluded by copying the reply he had sent to each individual who had written an impact statement.  He wanted the court and defense counsel to understand the efforts he was engaged in to reassure them that Quinley’s plea, along with the agreed sentence recommendation that resulted from the plea, were the most just resolutions available.  The plea had been the outcome of numerous conversations with the victim’s immediate family and with the police department of the slain officer.  Both the family and the department supported the State’s offer.  And they agreed that the sentence — if the judge accepted the recommendation — would avoid another agonizing trial, the outcome of which might see Quinley’s immediate release given the time he had already served.

I then began to read the letters that followed the prosecutor’s introduction.  One came from the victim’s grown daughter, who wrote of her forgiveness of Quinley.  Others, however, arrived from individuals in the interested community, many of whom wrote angrily of Quinley, insisting that the judge reject the recommendation of the parties, and sentence Quinley to spend the rest of his life in prison.  Several mentioned the family that the officer left behind, including the two young sons and his daughter, who had been twelve at the time of her father’s death.  The most vitriolic letter came from a childhood friend of the officer who now lived in Alaska.

The impact statements and the prosecutor’s serial emails in which the statements were nested had prompted a series of rapid email replies from one of the defendant’s attorneys — evidently reading them upon arrival at his computer at the same time I was reading them upon arrival at mine.  He protested the “mob mentality” on display in the letters, and insisted that none of these individuals knew the circumstances of the defendant’s actions.  Not one, he wrote, understood how the boy involved in the shooting fourteen years ago had forged, in the crucible of prison, the mature, intelligent, and responsible man he was today, a man who merely wanted another chance to work in this world and to create a life beyond the one into which he’d been born.

Quinley did not seek infamy, his attorney wrote in closing, did not want the media attention or — as some had implied — a protective legacy on the streets as one who had killed a cop.  He had a teenage daughter who had been born two months after his arrest.  She was now about to enter high school.  She was a musician, like her mother.  Quinley wanted to be her father.

Reading this exchange between the two attorneys and the authors of the letters to the court, I became an involuntary medium through which an impassioned public could vent its nearly anonymous rage.  Quinley’s attorney was right.  The authors of these statements to the court did not know Quinley, despite feeling that by virtue of the impact of his acts upon their lives they knew enough of him to advise the court on his fate.  It was likely that not even Quinley’s own family knew him as well as the two attorneys who had been working so closely with him over the years.

I did not know Quinley either, but I had observed him in court during a number of hearings, and read of his experiences through the filtered narrative of his attorneys.  I’d become interested in him and in his circumstances in a way I had only occasionally become interested in the circumstances of other defendants.  As an officer of the court, I occupied that impartial position between adversaries that permits dispassion and, at times, encourages the sort of detached curiosity from which a hopeful affection for those who struggle within the judicial system arises.  Quinley had always presented a kind of dignity in court, and a patience not evident in many other criminal defendants.

I understood that these characteristics, rather than the manifestation of maturity and remorse, might be merely the result of the years he had already served in prison for this offense.  Most defendants arrive in court for proceedings that lead up to their conviction or acquittal, not for proceedings that follow those events.  Almost by definition of that status they are impatient and anxious, inexperienced in the inexplicable delays inherent in criminal prosecutions, ignorant of procedures and therefore burdened with inappropriate expectations of service and results.

Quinley, in contrast, already had years of interaction with the system upon assignment to our court for a second trial.  He had experienced much more legal process than most defendants, both in the sheer quantity of procedures as well as in the variety of their types.  As a result, he arrived for each hearing with the appropriate expectations of one who has had hopes elevated, dashed, then elevated again over and over.  If at one time he believed he might spend the rest of his life in prison, he could now afford the price of patience as these latest developments played themselves out.

This attitude, however, along with what appeared to be genuine respect for his public defenders and now a sincere smile that he even shared with the prosecutor when appropriate, had captured my attention and interested me in the resolution of his case.  My concern was grounded in the facts of the offense with which he’d been charged and from which his plea of guilty had been entered, but it extended beyond those facts.  Whether or not Quinley had fired the shot that killed the officer fourteen years ago, I believed — or wanted to believe — that in the intervening years he had changed.  He now appeared to be the sort of individual from whose participation in society we might all benefit, from whose insights on failure, struggle, and survival we could learn.

After reading all the impact statements and the accompanying comments from the defense, I forwarded each one to the judge’s personal email account so he could read them at home over the weekend.  I then called court security and requested that they make a few extra deputies available for the sentencing.  I knew the courtroom would be filled with uniformed police officers in a show of solidarity with their fallen comrade.  I did not want any threat or display of anger from family or friends on either side to engage a show of force.  The deputy on the phone assured me that security staff would be present in court that day.

The last thing I did before closing the courtroom and leaving chambers for the long weekend was to write a quick reply to the prosecutor and defense counsel, thanking them in advance of the anxieties that would strain any professional communication on the actual day of sentencing.  Although we had not had to experience the intensive in-country battles that a high profile, emotional trial often feels like to the participants, they and the judge had worked very hard.  Their involvement with the court had always been courteous, kind, and even cooperative in spirit, if adversarial by design.  I was grateful, and knew the judge thanked them too.

1.9 Two Sides to Every Story