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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A few lies create doubts sentence will help

I met a couple of liars a few weeks ago.
It shouldn’t have surprised me, especially when you consider where we were when it happened.
It was, after all, a courtroom on the eighth floor of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court.
I haven’t had a lot of occasion to walk into a courthouse over the years. Sure, I did a stint on jury duty in 2006, and I have covered a few hearings and court appearances as part of my job.
But, before last month, I’d never sat in the gallery as a proceeding involving me took place.
I was there on June 20 on behalf of my mom, whose house was burglarized on Sept. 17. Having a generous boss worked in my favor as I let my nosiness get the best of me when we got the letter announcing that the suspect who was arrested in December had pleaded guilty to a fourth-degree felony charge of burglary.
The letter, from an assistant prosecuting attorney Callista Regas, explained that he was scheduled for a sentencing hearing and that we could provide a witness impact statement for the judge to consider when making her ruling.
If you know me at all, and I think you do by now, you know I jumped at the chance. I’m a writer, I thought, so who better to explain the complete disaster that was this brazen act by what turned out to be a 17-year-old boy.
A few days after emailing the letter, I dialed up my courage and drove down to what’s been called the “Taj Mahal,” the new Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court building on Quincy Avenue in Cleveland.
It’s a gorgeous building that is full of people working with children and families who have found themselves in troubling circumstances.
My business was in the courtroom of Juvenile Court Judge Kristin W. Sweeney.
She proved to be a no-nonsense jurist who pays attention to what’s going on around her as she listens to testimony.
For instance, she noticed my eyes roll when the probation officer recommended probation for the teen who stood before her.
And, when he detailed his full report, she pounced on the holes.
He said that the teen’s mother told him the suspect was a good kid, and that his grades were “good.” When quizzed by the judge, the suspect said he didn’t have all F’s and didn’t have all C’s.
There was no grade report, though, so no one could say for sure what he’d gotten in the last semester he’d attended classes.
The probation officer said the suspect had a serious marijuana problem at the time of the crime. He said the boy reported that he’d been clean for “30 to 45 days.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, whether it was a box they’d checked on a form or if that’s what he told the probation officer.
“If I gave you a drug test right now, would it come back clean?” the judge asked.
“No,” the teenager asked.
Sweeney sat back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest and said, “I want a deputy. Now.”
After a break to allow the deputy to get to the courtroom, Sweeney lectured the suspect on his contempt for the court in that he went to a friend’s party and smoked pot just a week or so before he knew he was headed to court for sentencing.
She remanded him into custody with a $50,000 bond. To get out, he’d need to post $5,000.
Sweeney then set a new sentencing date, at which time all the documents relating to the suspect’s status were to be presented.
When I reported back to the eighth floor this week, the prosecutor assigned to the case that day asked me if I wanted to speak in court. I declined, saying that aside from learning his sentence, my main purpose there was to find out about his grades.
He immediately got up and went to find the probation officer to see the grade report.
“Well, they’re all F’s,” he said.
A few minutes later, we were called in for the hearing. Everyone present got the chance to speak again.
When his mother stood up to address the court, I thought back to the first time I had seen her, sitting outside the courtroom with the defendant as they waited for the earlier hearing.
I sat on a bench near them, unaware of who they were.
She spent the better part of the five minutes we were sitting near each other telling him that he has always been a problem and was always mouthy.
“And now here we are, in court,” she told him.
He didn’t have much to say, as he sat there in his gray dress shirt and tie, eyes riveted to the floor. Periodically he’d answer her with, “yes.”
When I walked up on Tuesday, she was there again, sitting on the same bench. I sat a few benches down, not wanting to repeat that error.
In court, she was direct with the judge and her son.
“You don’t age out of this,” she said, pointing to her chest. “I’m here for life.”
She sobbed as she told him that the change he needs to make in his life must come from him, and that she expects him to never repeat the errors he’s made.
When it was his turn to speak, the suspect turned to his mother to apologize for all he’s put her through since he was charged with felony counts in five burglaries.
He wept as he promised he’d never do anything like it again.
After he sat down, the judge served up his sentence.
She sentenced him to probation, but told him the leash is very short. He must submit to a drug test once a month. He must serve 10 hours of community service for each count. He must enroll in school and attend daily “with no cuts, tardies or suspensions.”
And, he must work off the $400 in damage to my mom’s home.
I accepted the sentence, but wonder if he’ll be able to fulfill it. I keep thinking back to all the lies told during the pre-sentence investigation.
I hope, for his sake, that this period of his life brings about the change necessary for him to become a productive member of society.

— Laura Kessel | | @lauranh


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