Robert Tanenbaum: Outrage

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Robert Tanenbaum Outrage
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Robert K. Tanenbaum



“All rise!”

At the command of a rotund, jowly court clerk, those people still sitting in the gallery pews of the courtroom jumped up and stood at attention like soldiers waiting for the commanding officer to enter. The lawyers on either side of the aisle-prosecution on the right, closest to the jury box and witness stand; defense on the left-were already on their feet and now turned their attention to the front.

Slowest to rise was the defendant, a slightly built young man with wavy dark hair and large, luminous brown eyes. Head down, defeated, he appeared incapable of committing the horrendous crimes for which he’d been convicted a few weeks earlier. But the big man standing at the prosecution table just a few feet to his right had convinced the jurors otherwise. Now his life hung in the balance.

“Oyez oyez oyez,” announced the clerk, an Irishman named Edmund Farley, “all those who have business before part thirty-six of the supreme court, state of New York, New York County, draw near and ye shall be heard. The Honorable Supreme Court Justice Timothy Dermondy presiding…”

As Farley droned on, Dermondy swept into the courtroom, bringing a black cloud of judicial decorum. The somberness of the moment was etched into his intelligent, angular face. He had never been one to tolerate fools in his courtroom, and it was clear to everyone present that he wasn’t about to start now. His dark eyes swept across those assembled within the confines of the dark wood-paneled room as if daring any one of them to disturb the sanctity of the proceedings as he stepped up onto the judge’s dais and sat down.

“Representing the People, the Honorable District Attorney Roger Karp and Assistant District Attorney Ray Guma; representing the defendant, Stacy Langton and Mavis Huntley,” Farley said, continuing as he had for some thirty years without missing a beat. He looked at the judge and said, “Your Honor, all of the jurors are present and accounted for; counsel and the defendant are present. The case on trial is ready to proceed.”

Dermondy gave Farley a quick nod. The clerk then turned back to his audience, smiled, and invited them to be seated.

“Thank you, Mr. Farley,” Dermondy said. “Good morning, everyone, especially you jurors-your task has been arduous, but it is coming to a close. I would like to ask something more of you. I know you’re tired, but I urge you to focus now, more than ever, on this sacred task because a man’s life is at stake.”

The judge allowed the comment to sink in as he studied the faces of the twelve jurors. “As you are aware, this is a death penalty case, and what you decide may eventually reach a finality that cannot be undone for the defendant. He sits here convicted by you of two counts of murder. The People are seeking the death penalty and both sides have presented their evidence to you over the past couple of weeks for why, or why not, the defendant should be put to death for his crimes. Yesterday, you heard Ms. Langton present her summation on behalf of her client, the defendant; today you will hear from the district attorney, Mr. Karp.”

Again Dermondy paused to allow the jurors to keep up. They looked worn out, their faces set in stone-they just wanted to go home to their families. Murder trials were tough enough on jurors, especially when they had to be sequestered, but death penalty cases were particularly emotionally and physically draining. Still, he needed them to hang in there a little while longer.

Then we’ll all get to go home, Dermondy thought. But he also knew from his lengthy prosecutorial background and distinguished service on the bench that this was a case no one would ever forget.

“Let me remind you once again that during summation, the attorneys will tell you what they believe the evidence shows. However, what they say is not evidence, and it will be up to you to decide what weight, if any, to give their presentations. Do you understand?”

He was pleased to see them all nod. “Will you promise to focus one more time on what is said today, and then after the lawyers give their final arguments, their summations, and I charge you on the law, meaning simply give my legal instructions to you, you will deliberate and render a fair and just verdict?”

Again, twelve heads went up and down.

“Good. I thank you.” Satisfied that the jury was in the proper frame of mind, Dermondy turned his attention to the prosecution table and said, “Mr. Karp, are you ready to proceed?”

Roger “Butch” Karp, all six foot five of him, tapped the yellow legal pad he’d been making notes on and rose from his seat. “Yes, Your Honor.”

“Then, please, the floor is yours.”

Dressed in his usual off-the-rack, bar mitzvah-blue suit, Karp came out from around the table and walked over to stand in front of the defense table, limping slightly from having aggravated an old basketball injury to his right knee. He looked down for a moment at the defendant, who quickly averted his eyes, his face drained of what little color he had left after several months incarcerated in the Tombs, the hellhole otherwise known as the Manhattan House of Detention for Men.

Shaking his head, Karp then turned to face the jury box, fixing his gold-flecked gray eyes on each juror for a moment before moving to the next. He nodded when he reached the last face, then began. “As you now have experienced, a capital murder trial has two separate phases. In law we say it is a ‘bifurcated’ proceeding. In phase one, the guilt phase, you the jury determined that the defendant is guilty of the murders for which he was charged. Phase two, the sentencing phase, deals with whether in your opinion, and based on the law, the defendant should be sentenced to death.”

Karp let the finality of that sink in before continuing. “For the past couple of weeks, on behalf of the People, my colleague Ray Guma and I have presented evidence-what we call ‘aggravating factors’-that more than justifies sentencing this defendant to death. For example, you were shown additional crime scene photographs and heard from the People’s witnesses who graphically described the vicious nature of the defendant’s merciless attacks on the deceased, Olivia Yancy and Beth Jenkins. But other than a brief few minutes in which Olivia’s husband, Dale, spoke movingly, you heard very little about these women as real, living, breathing individuals.”

Turning to point at the defense table, Karp said, “And as you know, the defense then presented its case, arguing that there were mitigating circumstances for why the defendant committed these crimes. The defense hopes this will persuade you to vote against invoking the death penalty. As such, you listened to a great deal about the defendant-his abused childhood, the violence he may have witnessed at an early age, the absence of convictions for other violent crimes, and how he may have been sexually assaulted while serving time in a juvenile detention facility some five years ago.”

Karp walked slowly over to the defense table until he was standing in front of it. “If these things are true, then we certainly agree that no child should be abused or traumatized, and we may even come to understand what demons drive this defendant’s evil nature,” he said, fixing the defendant with a hard look. “But I also ask you to remember the testimony of Moishe Sobelman and the horrors he survived at the Sobibor death camp. And then remember that understanding does not mean that we forgive or excuse the brutal, vicious, methodical, and inhumane horrors that evil men perpetrate on the innocent-that the defendant perpetrated on two innocent women, Olivia Yancy and Beth Jenkins.”

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