By El Presynt
It’s almost cliché to hear how blind Justice is, but I’m of the negative opinion to such a notion. When you have money, power and influence, Justice sees everything. She sees behind every locked door and under every stone. We all would like to believe that Justice maintains the balance of her scales by way of her merit and effort, but we all know that’s not true. We all know that most times she is burdened by the demand of hardship, of making an example, and at other times she is persuaded to look the other way. More importantly, it’s fair to conclude that Justice doesn’t even have a voice of her own. If she did, then there would be a standard that was transparent and applicable to everyone, everywhere. That’s obviously not the case.
Or maybe I’m just being biased. Here I sit, 19 years into a Life plus 18-year sentence for the first degree murder conviction of a man whose lifestyle was as toxic as my own. He didn’t deserve to die and I definitely don’t want to imply that I shouldn’t have to face the consequences of my actions. However, I was sentenced to “forever,” in the Virginia Department of Corrections. I don’t see Justice in that. I mean, I used to consider the idea that maybe Justice is blind to the guilty. I quickly dismissed that idea because the truth is Justice is only blind to the poor, to the powerless and to the unknown.
I can only speak firsthand of Justice’s indiscretions because I haven’t at any point throughout my proceedings seen her face. I was appointed counsel by the court because I couldn’t afford to hire my own. And what does he do in my defense…? Well, being a first-time felon and naive to the pretrial formalities, I trusted and followed the advice of my counsel at every turn and hurdle. He knew how serious these charges were because we talked about it, so whatever he suggested or “advised,” I agreed with him blindly. I had no reason to believe that he didn’t have my best interest. He was an agent of Justice…
There was a conflict of interest in his representation of me because he also represented a co-conspirator in my case who planned to testify against me. He suggested that I stand firm with his representation, considering that he had already begun building a defense and his representation of my co-conspirator in a forgery case would not interfere with his fight for my life. So I signed a waiver, acknowledging I knew of the conflict of interest but was ok with it, in so many words.
He suggested that I waive my right to a jury trial, considering that I had no prior felonies and I would be subjected to a pre-sentencing report that had sentencing guidelines from which the judge would sentence me. As opposed to a jury, who could sentence me anywhere from 20 years to Life. He never enlightened me to the fact that sentencing guidelines were discretionary. By the way he sold it to me, I would get the low end of whatever number of years that were calculated. So I waived my right to a jury trial, stating on the record that I knew what I was doing by waiving such a right, when in fact, I really didn’t because he misled me.
He even suggested that I waive my right to a speedy trial, as his logic was for me to have a trial separate from my co-defendants because if they helped themselves it would hurt me and my case. So I waived that right to a speedy trial and had my trial a few months beyond what the statute mandates for speedy trials. The other violations and, “harmless errors” were all just a tail and pony show which led to my seemingly lawful demise. Maybe my lack of Justice was by way of my own ignorance? Well, let’s see…
Once all of my appeals were denied and my conviction became final, I was on my own to pursue post-conviction relief. I reached out to my former counsel for my case file but he wouldn’t send it to me. First he said that he wouldn’t be reimbursed for the costs of sending me my whole case file and I certainly didn’t have the money to pay for it. However, a friend of mine who was a little savvy with the law told me that he has to send it to me for free under discovery rule 3A:11. I didn’t know what that rule was but I went with it. I wrote to him again and quoted that rule in my letter. He responded and told me that he received those discovery items from the Commonwealth under rule 3A:11 under the pretense that they would not be given to me to be circulated. I didn’t know what that meant or if that was even true. My law savvy friend was no longer in the unit with me and the law library at that facility was trash, so it pretty much died there.
A few years later I met a guy who was an official with criminal law and when I told him about what my former counsel said, he helped me file a complaint to the Virginia State Bar. The Virginia State Bar reached out to my former counsel, to which he responded that he had a leak in his office that unfortunately destroyed my entire case file…medical examiner reports, ballistics, forensics, photographs of the crime scene, pretrial motions, other documents that could’ve been of relevance—gone. From a leak…? The funny thing about Justice is that she wouldn’t even penalize or reprimand him for lying, being incompetent or deceptive. Justice treated that irreparable issue as if it was nothing at all. She simply said to me, “Hey, tough luck.”
Justice’s elusiveness was not limited to my counsel’s illegitimate acts. The judge, being one of Justice’s main cohorts, wouldn’t allow her to look at me. A couple of years ago, I filed a Motion To Vacate challenging the legality of my sentencing order. There’s mandatory language that is supposed to be in the order making it a valid order. However, that language is not there. I had to file the motion “in forma paupers,” as an indigent prisoner. The Virginia Supreme court responded to my motion in one sentence:
“On March 7, 2022, came the appellate, who is self-represented, and filed a motion to supplement the petition for rehearing in this case, upon consideration thereof, the court denies the motion.”
Coe v. Commonwealth, Va. Sup. Ct. Record No. 210851
No brief, no memorandum stating legal authority that would confirm the legitimacy of the sentencing order. No explanation as to why it would be permissible for my sentencing order to absent said language yet still be valid, yet other sentencing orders that are without it are considered null and void. Nothing. I guess when you’re indigent, you’re not worth anything more than a sentence, ironically.
Still searching for Justice, trying to get her to look at me, I discovered in a case titled, Shifflett v. Commonwealth, that the court stated:
“For the determination of SENTENCES, Justice generally requires consideration of more than the particular acts by which the crime was committed and that there be taken into account the circumstances of the offense together with the character of the offender…Possession of the fullest information possible concerning the defendant’s LIFE and the characteristics is highly relevant – if not essential – to the selection of an appropriate sentence.”
26 Va.App.254, 259-260 (1997)
I also find that funny because that requirement of consideration wasn’t applied in my case at all. My abusive childhood wasn’t something that the courts considered. I was raised by a woman who was bipolar and not only beat and abused me during my youth, but she did the same things to my mother and my uncle when they were younger. John Bowlby, an anthropologist and psychoanalyst, studied patterns of attachment between mothers and children and one of the four schemas involved abusive, “Disorganized Mothers,” that send highly conflicting signals to their children, reflecting their own inner chaos and perhaps early emotional traumas. He went on to explain that such children can develop serious and powerful emotional problems. Justice didn’t care much about that whatsoever. Justice also disregarded the fact that just hours before the shooting, I had my face bashed in with the back of a gun and lost consciousness briefly a couple of times before 911 was called and I was to be taken to the hospital. I had problems with drugs and alcohol as well. Even though I was 21 years old when this incident occurred, I was abusing both since I was 14. Justice didn’t see that as much of a big deal to be considered either.
There is another case titled, Smith v. Commonwealth, that speaks about remorse. The courts in that case stated:
“A lack of remorse is ‘obviously proper’ evidence to consider in determining dangerousness […] and whether the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence in the future; Consideration of a defendant’s attitude ‘plays an important role’ in the courts determination of the rehabilitative potential [and future dangerousness] of the defendant.”
27 Va.App. 357, 361-363 (1998)
What’s so interesting about this case in particular is the truth of its assessment. I mean, aside from the remorse I showed the victim’s family and all those who attended my sentencing in his support, I was on record prior to the trial saying that I was completely unaware that Dennis had a 5-year-old daughter until months after the incident occurred, and I expressed understanding and acknowledgment of what I unknowingly did to her future. It’s sort of ironic, even a little disturbing, to learn that Justice was well aware of my rehabilitative potential before I even knew what that meant, considering all that I’ve done and accomplished throughout the course of my incarceration.
I’m an author with a book and published literature about my life, incarceration and social justice issues. I’m a philanthropist and I work with a nonprofit organization called, “Creative Corrections Education Foundation,” that provides scholarships to children with incarcerated parents. I’ve completed almost every treatment program from each of the 7 facilities I’ve been housed in over the last 2 decades. Programs such as Victim’s Impact, Distress Tolerance, Anger Management and more. I’ve educated myself by first acquiring my GED, then a trade in Custodial Maintenance, and I’m currently taking correspondence courses for Creative Writing and Creative Language. I no longer suffer from the traumas of my childhood nor do I even think with a criminal mind that I would be anything less than a pillar of my community upon release. But Justice doesn’t have eyes for someone like me. There’s no parole, no reconsiderations, “Second Looks,” or sentence modifications for the rehabilitated felon like me. Justice didn’t care about my abusive childhood or the remorse I displayed for the victims when she allowed me to be sentenced to Life.
And what really bothers me about Justice and her disdain for the broke and the ignorant is the fact that if I had money, any kind of influence or if I perhaps, “knew somebody who knew somebody,” I’d been home by now. I can say this with a bit of certainty because aside from being in this place with people whom have done worse and got sentenced to less time, I’ve consulted with private counsels that told me that I was supposed to get 15 – 20 for second degree. But that would’ve cost me anywhere from $85 – 100k. I know a lawyer right now who guarantees me post-conviction relief for $150k. 6 figures to get Justice to look at me…? It leaves me shaking my head.
I don’t know who Justice is, nor the circumstances of which grace, fairness and impartiality are to be applied once it’s determined who these attributes are applicable to. But I’ve been studying, watching and observing her for years, and in my educated opinion, if you don’t have the bag and a sponsor or two, Justice is not only blind, but she suddenly becomes deaf and dumb too.
El Presynt is incarcerated in Virginia