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From courtroom drama to unexpected humanity

I covered a murder trial this week from gavel to gavel. One life had been brutally cut short. Other lives have been destroyed.

A friend had also attended a few hours of the three-day trial filled with courtroom drama. She too viewed gruesome autopsy photographs and heard gut-wrenching testimony. The fundamental tragedy of the entire situation still reverberating in her soul, she voiced concerns about my own.

"I don't know how you can bear witness to this level of pain on a regular basis," she said.

The short answer is, it's my job. The longer one? Well ... I'll get back to you on that.

Courtrooms are filled with stories of humanity in the raw. Victims may have suffered grievous injury. They, and society, are seeking justice. The liberty of the accused — sometimes their very life — hangs on the line. In our adversarial criminal justice system, prosecutors and defense attorneys engage in legal battles designed to sway judges and juries.

A few months ago, I watched a young man plead guilty to an assault. It was a typical plea deal. In exchange for a guilty plea, prosecutors had agreed to drop some of his charges. His was one of many sentencings happening that particular afternoon, but it wasn't the case I was there to cover. So I was only half listening. At first.

The prosecutor laid out the bare bones before the judge. The accused had gotten angry about noise emanating from an establishment. He'd stormed into the place, tossed around some furniture and had seriously injured a man in the process. The prosecutor read a letter from the victim into the record that detailed the man's injuries. Understandably angry, the victim had asked the judge to render the maximum prison sentence allowable by law.

The defendant's equally young public defender begged the judge to be lenient. Alcohol had fueled this uncharacteristic assault. His client's wife was pregnant and due to give birth soon, he said.

The young man voiced his deep regret and offered his abject apologies. He asked to orchestrate his pending incarceration in a manner that would allow him to care for his wife and baby, he said.

Before the judge, who is never bound by the deals worked out between both sides, could rule, the victim, an older gentleman, rose to his feet and asked to speak. Again.

His injured arm was still bandaged and strapped to his chest. He wasn't moving too well. He was, however, approaching the bench, bound and determined to speak his mind.

Here we go, I thought. Can't say I blamed the fellow. His injuries were clearly painful. But how long was his rant going to take? And were the bailiffs going to be called?

Looking around the packed courtroom, it seemed everyone else was bracing for a hang-him-high diatribe, too. Or perhaps worse.

The victim referenced his angry letter briefly, then maneuvered to get a clearer look at the young man. As the older gentleman spoke about the father-to-be's actions that had broken his bones and landed them all in court that day, he too noted alcohol was involved.

Turns out alcohol had bedeviled his life, as well. And AA had helped save it. Retracting his demand for a stiff sentence, the victim rendered the judge, several seasoned attorneys and one would-be hard-bitten reporter speechless with a single, soul-lifting, jaw-dropping sentence.

"I'm willing to be his sponsor when he gets out," the man said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.