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The wheels of justice

Posted: July 10, 2014 7:49 a.m.
Updated: July 11, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit in a Kershaw County courtroom and see our justice system at work. As a news reporter, I have covered many trials and other court hearings through the years. Some have been quite fascinating, some have been quite boring and most have been a combination of the two.

I can honestly say this about every court procedure I’ve ever witnessed … it’s not Perry Mason, it’s not L.A. Law and it’s not Matlock. Fiery, passionate speeches and courtroom drama are common on TV and in movies, but I’m afraid real life is much more mundane.

But real life is real, and the real lives of real people are involved when a criminal and his or her family are in court with a victim and his or her family. Such was the case this week when a young man was set to enter a guilty plea to a charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. He, by his own admission, had attacked another young man with a baseball bat and caused him serious injuries including a skull fracture and brain damage which still affects the victim and likely will for the rest of his life.

The original charge was attempted murder and the solicitor’s office was willing to lower the charge in exchange for the guilty plea, avoiding a trial but still sending the perpetrator to prison, even if for fewer years.

The real-life human drama that unfolded before me was a tale of a real tragedy, on both sides. The severely injured victim had planned to join the military and had already been accepted and given a date to report for induction. He said he intended to make a career of the military and he had his life laid out before him. That all changed when he was attacked and severely injured.

His mother told the judge of the heartache she and the rest of the family had been through, at first not even knowing if their young man would even survive, and then having to deal with his ongoing medical problems and the insurmountable medical bills that came with them.

At the other end of the table was the other family, who knew they would soon be losing their own young man to a prison cell. He also has a girlfriend who is expecting his first child, he told the judge. Not that it should result in leniency for the defendant, but my point is this: no matter the final outcome, there would be no winners in this contest. The different parties in the case gave different versions of how the attack happened. The defense attorney and the defendant did not deny the assault took place, but their version of how and why it happened were not the same story told by police and the solicitor.

The solicitor asked the judge for a 20-year sentence. The defense attorney said six to 10 years would be more fitting. In the end, the judge accepted the guilty plea and more or less split the difference and imposed an 11-year sentence. After the proceeding, the victim’s mother told me she was satisfied with the sentence and it was about what she had expected. The victim himself didn’t seem at all bitter or disappointed and told me he didn’t want his assailant to go to prison for 30 years, which could have been the penalty if he had been convicted in a trial. He said some penalty was appropriate and 11 years seemed proper. I don’t know if I could have had that much generosity.

So, I got to see the wheels of justice turn in Kershaw County. Those wheels sometimes turn kind of slow, but rest assured, people, they do turn. This week’s experience has me looking forward to more upcoming trials or plea hearings that are coming up and I’ll be grateful to be there and tell you the results here in the Chronicle-Independent.

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