As some of you may know, in my regular life I’m a news reporter. I rarely share information about my work, but today I feel compelled to do so.
Though most days are pretty routine — press conferences, city and community meetings, etc. — some days I cover stories that just won’t leave me alone.
On Friday, I sat in Connecticut Superior Court and watched a 20-year-old man named Branden be sentenced to 20 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a firearm, a lesser charge than murder, for killing another young man, Tyrell, about three years ago. He’ll likely do about 12 years, and then three years of probation.
Covering court cases can be exciting for a reporter. We’re nosey and covering courts provides all kinds of juicy bits of information and a fascinating window into the minds and lives of people. A day in court also gives you a front row seat to the American justice system, which is valuable in a time where a lot of people are talking about it, but have never actually experienced it. It also allows you the rush of re-telling a story that people are going to want to read/hear. (I mean, most of y’all probably listened to the “Serial” podcast, so I’m sure you get it.)
But covering Branden’s sentencing was agony for me. And while my boss was hyped because telling the story of Branden’s sentencing qualifies as a “good” news day for us, it was hell on this reporter.
A Tale of Two Brown Boys
Branden was 18-years-old when he committed the crime he pleaded guilty to Friday; he’s now 20. Tyrell was the same age Branden is now, when he was shot and killed. If he’s “lucky” Branden will be 32 when he completes his sentence. If not, he will be 40. My first revelation? This is one hell of a school-to-prison pipeline.
With Branden’s family sitting on one side, and Tyrell’s family on the other, the tension was barely contained. At one point the marshals became visibly agitated when raised voices could be heard outside the courtroom doors. Various family members on both sides stormed out the courtroom throughout the sentencing.
I’ve not been in a courtroom a lot in my 13 years as a reporter, but I have covered a few cases. This one made me profoundly sad about the future because it reminded me of how often lives in America are wasted in this way. A young man lost his life. The young man convicted of killing him is losing his life. And in a way all the people connected to them lose their lives just a little bit too. Why do such things happen?
A Fly on The Wall
I was struck by how many women were in court Friday in support of a man, not just for the case that I’d come to cover, but also for the handful of other cases that the judge presided over. Given that court was supposed to start at 10 a.m. and it was now almost 11 a.m. I wondered about their lives and what they might have been missing.
The court system seems to have no respect for their time. It was my job as a reporter, and that of the people who work for the court system, to be at court on Friday. We could have been there all day, and it wouldn’t much matter. But I suspect that these women had other places to be — other places they’d rather be. I don’t know so much if justice is blind, but when it comes to court, she is surely slow.
I also wondered how they were connected to these men. Why was it worth it to them to be present for their sentencing? Most of the women looked to be grandmothers, mothers, wives, girlfriends and sisters. They also were all black women. How did they get here?
More practically, what job did they take off from to be at court? If they have children, who was keeping them? If they brought a child with them to court, how where they going to keep the child entertained and quiet? And for what? Just a short glimpse of a loved one. And surely that one is loved, and dear, at least to the person who came all that way, and spent all that time, to bear witness to this next phase of this process.
I watched with what felt like morbid curiosity, as the judge told the attorney of one handcuffed 18-year-old manchild that he would not honor a request that would keep him in juvenile detention. Instead he would be transferred to the adult detention center because he was soon turning 19. A woman who appeared to be his mother started to sniffle. The 18-year-old made a point to make eye contact with the teary-eyed woman and a younger woman who was with her before the marshal shut the door of the room he had been escorted to, presumably to be returned to lock-up.
Then it occurred to me that if you believe the man that you love is innocent of the crime for which he has been convicted, you will be there with bond money. You will help him get a lawyer and a suit for court. You will sit through his trial, and of course, be there for his sentencing.
Maybe you know why he committed the crime and it’s more complicated than, “He’s a bad man and he does bad things.” Maybe you’re a parent, and no matter how wayward the child, you are always hoping your kid will pull it together. I don’t know. I’m just guessing.
But to me it was almost like these women were being punished for being connected to these men. Guilty by association. I realized that to have a loved one in the court system, whether you’ve ever committed a crime or not, is to be doomed to serve time with them, especially if you have any hopes of staying active in their lives. And while some people might mock these women for their commitment to these men, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for them.
Breaking The Cycle?
As the prosecutor described the crime that Branden committed — the crime, not the charge — I vaguely heard a girl sitting behind me say under her breath of the prosecutor, “You lying.” I later heard a young man from Tyrell’s family’s side of the room whisper loud enough for Branden’s family to hear, “Ol’ scary nigga.” I watched as both sides sent side-ways glances at one another, and thought to myself that Branden’s sentencing won’t be the end of this. And if it’s not, it won’t be because somebody didn’t try to end it. It won’t be because nobody tried to be a voice of reason.
Tyrell’s father, Eddie, was the only older black man at court today who wasn’t wearing a badge. He has been vocal since his son was shot and killed. But on Friday he volunteered to be quiet. Not because he didn’t have anything to say, but because he felt the same tension that everyone was feeling in the courtroom. It was the type of tension that might have been relieved with a lot of cuss words and a brawl back in the day, but today would likely have ended in a hail of bullets given half a chance. Eddie’s choice to be silent is the kind you make when you realize the value of growing old, and live long enough to be wise.
Eddie is a man who knows what it’s like to miss being a part of his children’s lives because he’s been to jail. He said that though Branden faces a lot of prison time, there’s still hope for him and he wants to be a part of that hope. He offered his contact information with hopes that at some point Branden will consent to keep in touch and meet from time-to-time.
Eddie is a man who knows he isn’t a perfect father, and knows that in Tyrell, he hadn’t raised a perfect son. But nobody is perfect. Eddie’s eyes kept searching for those of his 12-year-old son, Xavier, while we talked. Xavier had tears in his eyes at the sentencing, and afterwards stood alone looking out over the city, refusing to be consoled. Eddie told me after court that he kept quiet because he didn’t want to further upset Branden’s family or his own. But he also wasn’t surprised by their reaction.
While I was impressed with Eddie’s olive branch to Branden, and his consideration toward Branden’s family, it was his daughter, Omuni, who impacted me most. At 35, she’s my age and the oldest of a fairly good sized sibling network. She spoke eloquently about how an environment that harbors violence — the very environment that Tyrell, Branden and her younger brothers lived in — only begets more violence. Quite frankly she nearly brought me to tears.
It was she who forced her brothers and sister, to focus on her, and not Branden’s family as they were escorted out of the courtroom. It was she who talked to the ones that had angry tears in their eyes, and it was she who took young Xavier to her bosom and hugged him, even as he refused to let the tears fall.
And what of Branden? He chose not to say anything on his own behalf at his sentencing. But I certainly don’t judge him for that. Maybe he just didn’t have anything to say. I can only imagine the riot of thoughts ricochetting through his head. Even if he can serve the 12 years without incident, it’s still more than a decade of his life, locked away from his family, his friends, his young son.
Maybe he is preparing for the hard road ahead that the judge laid out before him. He’s going to prison with no work experience and no high school diploma. If he can in fact find a way to turn his prison bid into something positive, he’ll still find life just as hard as it was when he left thanks to his felony record. It also made me wonder about plea deals and whether a person who does not have a basic education can comprehend what they are doing when they agree to one.
Because I’m a reporter, I felt a sort of ineptitude in getting all sides of the story. I had hoped to speak to Branden’s family to see what sense they made of all of this, but because of the tension, they were ushered out of the courthouse before I could talk to them.
I don’t know what I expected to feel after witnessing all this. But I left with a profound sense of hurt for both families. They are inextricably bound together by this tragedy, and I wonder can they set aside their hurt and their anger at the circumstances, at the system and at each other for this not to turn into New Haven’s version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. (Ironically, Branden’s defense attorney referenced the simmering feud between the two families as “Montague-Capulet,” though I wonder how many of either family has read much Shakespeare.)
But I think my last question is my most profound and disturbing: If the families can’t see past it all, who among them will be the next Tyrell and Branden?