The courtroom erupted. Yells cut the air. The audience pushed the wooden chairs causing them to rock like Weebles. The rest grabbed jackets and stormed out of the courtroom. I waited for the demonstration to end and the spectators to clear before leaving with the intern who had helped me with some legal issues in the case.
The intern asked, "Do you feel bad? For the family?"
In this case, my answer was no. The defendant had a lengthy criminal history and was a known violent gang member. I truly believe that we saved lives with this conviction.
But the conversation spread into other cases. Did I ever feel sympathy for the defendant or family? Or think jail was not the appropriate outcome? Many times I felt bad, but it depended on the case.
I'm not the type of prosecutor who measures success by the sentence a defendant receives. A jail term is punishment for an act that a victim or family will never forget. Sentencing a person to spend the rest of their life in jail will never bring the murder victim back to life. It surprised me how little closure I felt in most murder cases.
In my first major trial, a 50 year old defendant with no criminal history got drunk and decided to play a prank on his friend. The friend drove a 14 foot box style delivery truck, which was parked on the decline of a steep hill. The defendant climbed into the cab, intending to move the truck to a different spot as a prank. He lost control of the truck, which careened out of control and killed a 4 year old boy and seriously injured his mother.
I'll never forget the defendant's family lying prostrate on the ground, screaming at the guilty verdict. They cried so hard, the mucous was running from their nose. I thought I'd feel a sense of victory at winning that case, but it turned out to be one of the most difficult experiences I had.
It was the same way with my first murder case. A 16 year old was accused of shooting the victim 8 times. Violence had married two families who had never known each other before. In a murder case, two lives are gone forever, but many more are forever affected. The victory and life sentence did not bring warm feelings of success. It seemed irreverent to celebrate.
That's not to say there are not satisfying verdicts and sentences. The defendants who dragged a female pizza delivery driver into an abandoned house and robbed her by smashing her head with a two-by-four. The defendants who robbed six stores by tying up the clerks at gun point. The defendant who stabbed an unarmed kid 9 times causing his death and claimed it was self-defense. Those and many more brought a sense of closure and success.
I'm not sure what the criteria is for a satisfying verdict. I will probably never be able to answer that. The only thing I can answer is that, clearly, all of these cases stay with me.