A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker
It was a routine traffic stop in a small, tight-knit community – that's all it was.
But when the young police officer started talking to the occupants of the vehicle about their expired license plate tag, his skill and training took over. A cursory inspection led to the discovery of impropriety, and before long he was slipping a pair of handcuffs on one of the car's occupants for possession of cocaine. Suddenly the suspect pulled a gun from his waistband.
And a routine traffic stop became anything but.
Bullets flew in both directions. Both men were hit. The young officer died of his wounds. His assailant nearly did as well. But he lived and was arrested to stand trial for his crime – and to face the family, friends and colleagues of the police officer he killed.
For months people in the community mourned the tragic loss of an outstanding policeman. They expressed concern for his young widow and the 15-month-old son he wouldn't be around to help raise. They anguished for his brother, also a law enforcement officer in a neighboring community. And they anticipated a trial that was expected to be quick and easy, with a sure conviction and a one-way ticket to the state prison's Death Row.
There was every reason for that expectation. The evidence was stacked neatly against the defendant, including the late officer's handcuffs, which were still on the accused man's hands at the time he was arrested, and a bullet from the late officer's gun, which had been removed from the accused man's abdomen. Clearly he was guilty, and deserved the ultimate penalty for what many consider to be the ultimate crime against society: the murder of a police officer. The trial – and the subsequent punishment – should have been . . . well . . . routine.
But from the beginning this case was anything but routine.
Four months before the case was scheduled to come to trial the accused man appeared in court to change his "not guilty" plea to "guilty." With the blessing of the slain officer's family, the court ordered a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. But first, he had to face the father of the man he killed.
The courtroom was filled with emotion as the late officer's father rose to speak. Months of accumulated grief and anger and heartbreak and pain crescendoed in dozens of hearts as he stood face-to-face with the young man who, finally, had publicly accepted responsibility for his son's death. Anyone would have understood almost any expression of outrage or hatred, including a passionate rush toward the murderer with the intent to physically extract what King Arthur's referred to as "a man's vengeance."
What was perhaps harder for some to understand was the compassion in the father's voice as he spoke to his son's killer.
"One word can express what has been a part of our lives since this happened," the father said. "Sorrow. We feel sorrow at Joe's absence from our lives. We feel sorrow he won't be able to love his wife through the years or embrace his son."
Then he looked deeply into the young man's face – the last face his son had seen before he died. Tears streamed down his face and the faces of other family members who were present.
"I want you to know that we also feel sorrowful for your family," he said, "and for you."
Reporters converged on the officer's family following the judge's pronouncement of sentence. How could they react as they did at such a time?
"Everyone claims to believe in being forgiving and compassionate," one county attorney explained. "This family actually lives it."
And there's nothing routine about that.
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--- © Joseph Walker
Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com.