A Redemption Story

Post Date: April 19th, 2014


When I was presiding over a homicide docket 10 years ago, I conducted a sentencing hearing for a 19-year-old, first-generation Chinese American. He lived with his parents whose home, it turned out, was approximately two blocks from mine.

He did not drink, but he was at a birthday party and consumed liquor for the first time. He was so unaccustomed to it that when he got behind the wheel of his car he got on the freeway going eastbound instead of westbound towards his home. He tried to rectify the situation by exiting I-894 but then managed to enter the freeway via an exit ramp and drove eastbound on the westbound side of I-894 near the Plainfield curve.

Coming westbound on the correct side of the freeway at the same early hour of the morning was a man in his fifties. As he was rounding the Plainfield curve the two cars crashed head-on near the S. 27th Street exit ramps. The man was killed. The young man underwent numerous surgeries for the severe injuries he sustained.

A pre-sentence report was prepared by a specialized agent of the Department of Corrections. It contained the statement of the man’s widow who had come to regard the tragedy as a terribly unfortunate accident but an accident nonetheless. She did not want her viewpoint to be known to her family because her teenaged and young-adult children were still ferociously angry about their father’s death.

At the hearing, the older man’s mother spoke first. She brought with her a 16 x 20-inch framed photograph of her son and slowly displayed it to the entire courtroom. She did this, she said, so that he would be regarded as a man not simply a statistic. When she turned the photograph in the direction of the young man, he burst into tears.

Then the prosecutor gave his sentencing argument. He described the decedent as a pillar of the Hispanic community. He also noted that he was driving that early morning with a blood alcohol level of .20. The prosecutor under all the facts was not recommending a harsh sentence. Consistent with this, he closed by telling the story of what happened outside my courtroom door after the plea hearing two months earlier.

The young man’s attorney had approached the prosecutor saying his client wanted to talk to the widow and asking if this would be alright. The prosecutor asked the widow and she gave her consent. The young man dropped to his knees in front of her, bowed his head and cried his sorrow to her for his grave misdeed, asking her forgiveness which she gave.

It was such a moving experience that those who witnessed it, including the attorneys, could not hold back their own tears. Even the mere recounting of it in court two months later brought tears to my own eyes.

The mother of the young man spoke next at the sentencing hearing. She brought along her parish priest to translate for her because she was afraid in her nervousness that she would lose her English. I greeted her in Chinese. She then told me that her entire family would always share the burden of this crime and would pray for and do whatever else they could for the family of the decedent.

The young man’s attorney recounted that he was a dutiful family member, always willingly spending time with his grandparents at family events. He had planned to be a dentist and had volunteered at a dental office in both high school and college, but because of this felony he was precluded from entering that profession.

The young man wept during his remarks. He expressed what I judged to be authentic remorse and genuine caring for the family of the man he had killed.

What sentence? And how to express it when the decedent’s family was of divided opinion?

Weighing the alcohol-related death with the young man’s excellent character against the needs of the community for both punishment and rehabilitation, I decided on a sentence close to what the attorneys had argued for.

I pronounced it like this. “TEN YEARS!” and then quietly, “stayed in favor of” then loudly again, “TEN YEARS!” then quietly “of community supervision with one year in the local jail.”

In other words, I placed him on probation for 10 years with a 10-year prison sentence hanging over his head if he was noncompliant. As a condition of probation he had to spend one year in the local House of Correction with release for medical purposes only.

There were several “triangles” in this drama – the two attorneys and me; the two mothers and the widow; the widow, her children and the decedent – but the most memorable to me was the widow, the young man and the young man’s mother. In their sacred triplicity, the widow granted redemption to the young man in his heartfelt contrition but his lifelong burden was keenly expressed by his mother.