Thursday, April 13, 2006

Justice for the Voiceless

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Edward J. McLaughlin did something extraordinarily daring and brave yesterday.

In sentencing a mother who killed her 1-year-old boy and then collected his welfare checks for four years, Judge McLaughlin made the defendant listen to a victim impact statement — from the baby.

That is, the judge read a statement he had written from the child's point of view.

It may sound strange, but it's a practice that those who care about victims commonly take up with regard to other innocent dead, such as those of the Holocaust. Speaking in the voice of a silenced victim drives home the heartlessness of the victim's killer.

The Daily News will have the story online shortly — in the meantime, here's an account from the New York Times:

A judge in Manhattan yesterday imagined the dying moments of a child as the toddler's mother was sentenced to 10 years in prison for suffocating him with a pillow and continuing to collect welfare benefits in his name.

The judge, Justice Edward McLaughlin of State Supreme Court, said he was distressed that the child had died "unmourned," his body thrown in a Dumpster like trash, without the rituals and prayers that usually accompany a death.

Looking down from the bench at the child's mother, Diatra Hester-Bey, who was sitting at the defense table before him, Justice McLaughlin said that her son, Devon Rivers, who was 13 months old at the time of his death, was now in heaven, living an "eternal and blissful" life.

The judge then put himself in the mind of the dying child. He imagined that as Ms. Hester-Bey was smothering him, the baby was thinking, "Isn't this my mother who held me?" The judge continued, still using the voice of the child: "What's that light? What a sight. Hello, God."

Ms. Hester-Bey chose not to speak during her sentencing. She cried as her lawyer said that she was innocent.

Sentencing hearings can often seem like a secular version of a religious homily, that is, a judge's disquisition on the law, rather than a priest or rabbi's commentary on scripture. But Justice McLaughlin's sentencing speech had strikingly more spiritual overtones than most, although he took pains to say he was trying to articulate principles of humanity, not of any particular religion.
From Newsday:
McLaughlin, after alluding to sentencings that feature remarks by victims about the impact of a defendant's crime on their lives, began a religious reflection on Devon's life and death, noting that no one was there to speak for the boy.

"On Feb. 29, 2000, Devon Rivers awoke twice," the judge said. "The first time would be for a short, final day in his life on earth. His second awakening was in heaven as his life was transformed from brief and disheartening to eternal and blissful."

The judge said Devon's death was unacknowledged and he was unmourned.

"No Mass was said," the judge said. "No funeral or memorial service occurred. No prayers were raised. This sentence, therefore, is society's chance to acknowledge his short life, his mindless killing, and to recognize his presence among us and now his absence from us.

"Devon, humans failed you, but you know that God has not."