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After negotiations with the bailiff, I find myself in the back of Courtroom 18, the home of the elected judge who oversees juvenile delinquency cases, William Voy. Voy is in his 40s but looks a lot younger. For some reason, he reminds me of Lt. Columbo. Although he doesn't look at all like Peter Falk, he has some of the same mannerisms. Frumpish, that's the word. Right now, he is hunched over his desk, head in his hands, listening to the Deputy District Attorney reel off a series of facts against a defendent.
"He could have stopped the car and called the police," says the D.A. "But he didn't. Instead, he chose to pursue Mr. Thomas."
Judge Voy's eyelids droop, and I wonder if he is paying attention. He shifts in his chair, and his hands fidget. He rubs his eyes. The D.A. has to say what he has to say, but I can tell that Voy has already made his decision. What is happening in the courtroom now is mainly a formality, the necessary ritual that takes places whenever a convicted defendent is sentenced: The D.A. requests the maximum punishment; the victim demands vengeance; the defendent apologizes; and the defense attorney calls for leniency. Only then, after everyone has said their piece, can the judge announce the sentence. It can take a lot of time, and the fact is, none of these oral arguments really matter because the judge has already seen the case in trial and has all of the mitigating factors on paper. He knows basically how he will rule before the hearing begins. It may make a difference if the victim requests leniency or the defendent shows no remorse, but these events are rare.
The D.A. continues: "This wasn't a case of self-defense. When Mr. Thomas left the scene of the accident, it was not the defendent's job to pursue him. The witnesses already had the license plate number and a description of Mr. Thomas. They could have let the police handle it. Once the chase began, there were ample opportunities to break it off, and when the defendent and his companions finally confronted Mr. Thomas, there were plenty of opportunities to withdraw from the ensuing conflict. When the defendent got back in the car and Mr. Thomas appeared in front of him, he could have put the car in reverse, but instead he drove the car forward, running over Mr. Thomas. His head hit the curb and his torso was crushed. The Defendent then left Mr. Thomas dying in the street. He did not contact the police. He did not stay around to assist Mr. Thomas. Instead, he went home, and the car was hidden."
I turn my attention to the defendent. He is a very scared youth of about 16, half child, half man. He has killed a man and is about to be sentenced. This moment, I can see, is overwhelming to him. He is numb with shame and terror. Only his eyes move. They stare out at events that are swimming around him. I know he didn't "mean" to do it, but the law is generally blind to such things. It was his foot on the accellerator, and his free will is supposedly attached to that foot. American justice is mainly concerned with the settling of accounts. A man is dead, so someone has to pay.
Some discussion ensues between the attorneys and the judge about the victim's own role in the incident. Is it relevent that his blood alcohol level was well above the legal driving limit at the time of his death? The D.A. argues that you can't "blame the victim" in this case. Whether the victim was drunk has no bearing on the defendent's actions. The defendent was not drunk, and he was the one at the wheel.
Judge Voy replies that the blood alcohol of the victim is relevent in only one regard. "There is one thing that we are never going to know about this case. Did the victim throw himself in front of the car as the defendent contends? The defendent and victim were the only witnesses to that. The alcohol level has some bearing on whether Mr. Thomas' judgment was impaired to the point where he could do something like that."
I now realize that Voy is paying attention and that he has a good command of the facts in the case, which has been unfurling before him for the past six months.
Personally, I suspect that Mr. Thomas did not throw himself in front of the car, but that he was run down "in cold blood," but these suspicions are not evidence. I can imagine myself in the defendent's place: I have just had a violent argument with a drunk who was involved in a hit-and-run accident but admits nothing. I'm mad as hell and my adreneline is through the roof. Now I am behind the wheel, and the drunk is standing in front of me. I gun the engine, and he is gone.
The drunk could have throw himself in front of the car, and if this is the defendent's contention, the state has no evidence to refute it. The defendent did leave the scene of the accident, however, which is a powerful indicator of guilt.
The defense attorney, a grey-haired gentleman standing beside the defendent, contends that the defendent panicked when realized that he hit Mr. Thomas and ran because he thought he would be seen as guilty. He also points out that it was the defendent's friends who hid the car, not the defendent.
[Under contruction. Writing suspended for now due to resource allocation issues.]
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