MOMMY, WHY CAN'T YOU BE WITH US?
By Edgar J. Steele
May 28, 2002
And the King shall answer and say unto them, verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. --- Matthew 25:40
ROSEBURG, OREGON. - "Mommy, why can't you be with us?" With that, Ruth Christine sank into her chair at the sentencing hearing this morning, sobbing uncontrollably. She had just repeated for the Judge a question posed yesterday over the telephone by her daughter, Lidia, who clearly did not understand the import of what was playing out in this sleepy central Oregon hamlet. Neither did the other two elder Christine children, Miriam, the youngster whose condition set this entire tragedy in motion, nor 6-year-old Bethany, whose testimony was key in sending her parents, Ruth and Brian, to prison for 7-1/2 years and 12-1/2 years, respectfully. Within minutes of Ruth's collapse, that was the judge's ruling, following the guilty verdicts rendered by a jury two weeks ago.
(See When Dreams Become Nightmares , Day 1: State vs. Christine - A Family Divided , Day 4: State vs. Christine - A Family Divided and Guilty of Caring from my archives to come up to speed on The State of Oregon vs. Brian and Ruth Christine.)
It is difficult to make light of what is now in store for Ruth and Brian, but the cross thrust upon little Bethany by the prosecutor in this case is a wonder to behold. Imagine the horror as she ages and finally realizes the role she unwittingly played in her parents' imprisonment. And it didn't have to be that way.
Even as late as the last moment, as Deputy District Attorney Wesenberg called for Bethany to take the stand, I leaned over and urged him not to do it, saying that we would stipulate to anything Bethany might say, so as to prevent her the anguish that awaits her in the future. He would have none of it. That says more about the mentality of what it takes to be a prosecutor than anything else I can think to say.
Bethany placed the gun in Brian's hand, unnecessary since two other witnesses had already done so. But, she also placed Ruth at the scene, for which there was literally no other evidence. Without Bethany, Ruth walked. Or Ruth's admission, of course, which we offered to save Bethany the lifelong trauma that now awaits her.
We offered, essentially, to plead guilty to custodial interference and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, both felonies in themselves. Of course, we had offered that prior to the trial, but were rebuffed by Wesenberg. He wanted more. He wanted them both to serve 7-1/2 years each in order to enter into a plea agreement. We felt we could get at least that from a jury. In Ruth's case, we were right. In Brian's, however, the Oregon statute requiring an enhancement for use of a firearm added 5 years to that amount.
The real damage was delivered in the form of the conviction of both for Robbery 1, a "Measure 11" charge for which the judge had no discretion in meting out a minimum of 7-1/2 years each. He could have cut the 5-year gun enhancement for Brian to less than two, if he were so inclined. He wasn't.
I will file the appeal of the Robbery convictions this week. I think there is a reasonable chance of the appellate courts reversing that, based upon existing Oregon law which requires a showing that one "intends to permanently deprive" another of something to convict one of robbery. Brian drove the state van 2.1 miles and abandoned it, key in the ignition, with the personal effects of the state workers untouched, knowing that they had called for help from the pay phone at the scene immediately upon his departure. It took the state all of 30 minutes to locate the van, which it retrieved unharmed. Robbery, said the prosecutor. BS, said I.
The penalty for unauthorized use was enough. I don't think the jury really appreciated what it was doing when it piled on the Robbery conviction, too. I truly hope its members are aghast when they read tomorrow's papers and learn the consequences of their decision. I hope it provides them a goodly number of sleepless nights. I'll never know, of course, because Oregon law prohibits me from contacting jurors and asking their motivations. I guarantee you the prosecutor sleeps like a baby, though...that's the way they are.
One of the ironies of this trial was how badly little Bethany's testimony backfired, though the jury chose to ignore that fact. You see, after the prosecutor had finished using her to finger her parents, all without her appreciating for a moment the consequences of her words, I arose and asked just a handful of questions.
"Did anybody tell you to say (your father) pointed the gun, sweetie?" I asked. "Yes," came the diminutive response from the adorable little girl clutching her rag doll rabbit. "Who, sweetheart? Who told you to say that?" "He did," said Bethany, pointing directly at Deputy District Attorney Rick Wesenberg. The gasps from the courtroom audience brought a moment of suspense singularly lacking in the proceedings until that moment.
Let me pause for a moment and observe that trial work is a lot like flying jets. Long periods of overwhelming boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror. This was one of those moments for the prosecutor who, as I turned and pointed my finger at him, too, for the jury's benefit, blanched, sweat literally pouring off his face.
For myself, it was what I laughingly refer to as a "Perry Mason moment." Despite all the TV shows, trial work really is painfully mundane and hardly ever entertaining. Rarely...very rarely...the clouds part, the sun comes out and God smiles down on you. This happens for me about once every five years.
"Did that man (delivering as much accusation as I could load into that phrase as I waggled a finger at the profusely-sweating Wesenberg) also tell you to say your mommy was wearing a wig, Sweetie?" "Yes." "Do you know what a wig is, sweetheart?" "No." With that in hand, I had the good sense to shut up and sit down.
So, little Bethany's testimony was coached. Particularly in view of her tender age, the jury was entitled to disregard it altogether, if it wished. Reasonable doubt, we call it. They obviously weren't inclined to do so. Pity.
© 2002 Edgar Steele - All Rights Reserved
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