Good Friday morning ...
Only once have I been called to be a witness in a circuit court trial. It was in February of 1977.
One of my very first visits to Easton Memorial Hospital was in July of 1976. I was there to visit an elderly member of my church who was hospitalized with pneumonia. We had never met prior to my visit but quickly developed a sweet repport that evolved into a pastoral friendship that lasted until her death.
On that very first visit she asked if I would go see her grandson and, of course, I agreed. Then she told me he was incarcerated in the county jail on a charge of murder. As shocking as this was to hear for a wet-behind-the-ears pastor, I was eager to do what I could.
What followed was a series of visits to the Talbot County Jail where I developed a relationship with Gene over the course of several months leading up to his trial in February 1977. I found Gene to be a very likeable guy, a hard worker of the laborer type, and a lapsed member of my church. He had been raised in the county, lived there all his life and had a history of mixing with the wrong crowd. The charge of murder against him was horrendous in my judgment, but after learning more of the details through Gene and his public defender, the picture was not as grim as I had expected. It had happened during an argument with his live-in girlfriend who, of course, became the victim.
The trial took place over two days in February and I attended every minute. I was there to support Gene, though the outcome was fairly certain. As it progressed the charge of murder was reduced to manslaughter and the severity of the outcome was greatly reduced. Nonetheless, Gene was convicted and held over for sentencing.
At the sentencing hearing several days later, I was called as the first of two character witnesses and was sworn to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Being my first time in the witness box, I can assure you that things looked a lot differently from that perspective. For two days I had sat in that courtroom viewing it from the seat of a spectator. All of a sudden, I was on the opposite side of the rail looking out, housed in a confining witness box.
All eyes were on me, the witness. I tried to focus and relax as my heart hammered away. Instantly, there was a hesitation to speak, fearful that the wrong words might come tumbling out and be detrimental to Gene. The advice given to me by the public defender was BE TRUTHFUL. BE CONVINCING. And BE CLEAR. I was all those things as he peppered me with snowball questions about the somewhat rough character of his client.
Then it was the District Attorney's turn. Being an experienced trial lawyer before becoming States Attorney, he was an accomplished and skilled inquisitioner and masterful at his craft. He chewed me up and spit me out, harking on what little time I had known the defendant since coming to town just six months prior. He raked me up one side and down the other with no mercy at all for my position as pastor of a local congregation. I was blown away with his apparent insensitivity and disregard for my pastoral opinion.
To be sure, both I and the public defender, who himself was a greenhorn at law, were way out of our league up against a prominent stalwart of the legal community of Talbot County. He was a firebrand law-and-order guy which in my heart of hearts I truly appreciate and support. But in this case, I was simply trying to bolster the judge’s opinion of my lapsed parishioner in an effort to reduce the amount of time he would have to spend in state prison. His conviction was already a matter of fact; his sentence was the matter of attention in that hearing.
After my battering in the witness box, I meekly, with a wounded spirit and a heavy heart, made my way past the attorney’s tables and through the gate to the spectator’s seating. My testimony was shredded, and I was certain it did little good for Gene.
As it turned out, Gene was sentenced to ten years in prison. He would be released after serving six. During that time, we corresponded and arranged several visits. He became an avid reader of the Bible and took up colored pencil drawing. One of his “masterpieces" was an 11 X 14 picture of Christ on the cross which hung in my study all the years of my ministry. Upon his release, he took up masonry but contracted cancer and died an early death.
The District Attorney became a law partner with a member of the church I pastored and later became a good friend. He never remembered that day in February 1977 when he shredded my testimony and lectured me on how little I knew or understood the law. We have laughed about it from time to time, but he has never apologized, nor should he. He was doing his job and I was doing mine. We were both seeking justice, but my effort was enshrined in mercy while his was not. An understandable dichotomy of views considering our professions.
In the end, Gene received his due ... punishment for his crime. For my part, I thought his defense was inadequate, offered by a recent law school grad who had never before handled a crime of this magnitude. He was way out of his league against the likes of the experienced prosecuting attorney.
It seems a bit odd, but mercy and justice go together when offered under the umbrella of God's grace. God is a just God, demanding punishment for the sins of mankind. But He is, at the same time, merciful and by His grace extends mercy to those who come with heartfelt repentance.
I am thankful, in the end, that Gene received both justice and mercy. He came to know himself as a grave sinner and welcomed the redeeming grace offered through Christ and in God's mercy died a believer. He died justified ... just as if he'd never sinned.
"But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions --- it is by grace you have been saved." [Ephesians 2:4-5]
Have a great weekend in the Lord ...