Reading the presentence report got my hopes up. Finding out that one of the victims had shown up for the sentencing got them back down again.
I’d been assigned to represent Latanya back in July. She and another guy had swiped an employee’s purse from under a cash register at a store in the mall. Latanya’s mother was there at the first pretrial, telling me that Latanya’s boyfriend had gotten her to do this.
Apparently he'd gotten her to do a whole lot of other stuff, too. In Cuyahoga County, if you’re assigned to a case and the defendant picks up another one, you get that one, too. Latanya proved to be the gift that kept on giving: over the next three months, she wound up with three additional cases, stemming from a rash of home burglaries which had occurred in several of the local suburbs. The MO, according to the police reports – all 204 pages of them – was the same: Latanya would drive her boyfriend and one or two other guys to house and drop them off. They’d go to the house and knock on the door; if they heard someone coming, they’d take off, otherwise, they’d break in and take what they easily could – jewelry, laptop computers, TV sets. By that time, Latanya had circled around the block; she’d pick them up, and they’d go pawn the stuff. The net result was one count of first-degree felony burglary (a ten-year-old boy had been in one house) and twelve counts of second-degree felony burglary. In one of them, guns had been stolen, which resulted in a gun spec carrying mandatory time. And then there was a robbery thrown in for good measure, where the gang had grabbed a woman's purse.
Latanya’s mother was her ardent defender, providing a wide array of excuses: the others had taken Latanya’s car without her knowledge, she didn’t know what they were doing inside the houses, the boyfriend forced her to do this… These arguments were greatly complicated by the fact that Latanya had made a full confession when she’d finally been arrested, providing specific details as to most of the burglaries, including her role in them. Which was not insubstantial. The last offense was a purse-snatching, and the group had gone to Walgreen’s to use the stolen money to buy Visa debit cards. According to the police report, it was Latanya who was telling the others what stuff to buy. One of the other family members showed up at a pretrial, and after I’d explained what I’d most recently found out to him and Latanya’s mother, he pulled me aside and said, “She was in this up to her neck, wasn’t she?” I shrugged. After the fifth or sixth time you drop somebody off at a house they didn’t live in and five minutes later they come back and put a TV set they didn’t have before in your car, it’s tough to claim you didn’t know what was going on.
What was really maddening about the case was that Latanya isn’t a bad kid. I spent a lot of time talking to her, and she made no excuses for what she’d done, and fully accepted that it was wrong. She was 21, and before this had only a petty theft. Since the incident, she’d gone back to live with her family, was enrolled in a GED class, and had gotten a job.
Latanya and one of the other guys – not the boyfriend – pled out. It wasn’t the greatest deal, but then again, a full confession doesn’t leave you much maneuvering room. She wound up pleading to about half the burglary counts, including the first-degree one, although I did get the prosecutor to drop the gun spec. We had a good sentencing judge, but I told Latanya and her family that prison time was likely.
The pre-sentence report almost changed my mind; although it didn’t make a recommendation one way or the other, it did list a lot of recommendations for conditions of community control sanctions. Then the prosecutor told me that one of the victims was there.
She was a well-dressed middle-aged woman who spoke well, and as she did, I knew the gig was up. After listening to her tell how she felt “violated” by what had happened, there was no way the judge was going to turn around and put Latanya on paper with the victim still sitting in the courtroom. Besides, I could understand where she was coming from. I’ve had my house burglarized twice. The last time was over fifteen years ago, but I can still see my wife crying as she sat in the middle of our bedroom among the personal items the burglar had pulled from the closets and drawers and strewn about the room.
A point to remember: When your client apologizes for the harm they’ve caused, make sure they turn around and look at the victim when they do it. I forgot to tell Latanya that, although I don’t think it mattered. I made my spiel, which was basically that Latanya had been welcomed back into her family – six family members were present – and that with their care, guidance, and support nothing like this would ever happen again.
The judge gave her the minimum sentence on each count, and ran it all concurrent.
The mother followed me out of the courtroom and burst into tears, screaming, “I knew it wouldn’t matter what Latanya said!” I didn’t say anything. A mother’s entitled to her pain, and to believe what she wants to believe.
But if I had said anything, it would have been simply this: sometimes, saying “I’m sorry” just isn’t enough.