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Life Inside

My Judicial Detachment

I was taught that judges reason, never feel. And yet …

Alone at my chambers desk late in the day, I find myself staring blankly at Tyler’s death notice in the online Billings Gazette, and I am stunned. There are many who come to spend a few trial days in my courtroom and remain opaque and unreadable. This was never the case with Tyler, who, from the first, I had seen as wearing both his admirable strengths and his pitiable weaknesses as if they were medals on display. The notice’s bland statement that this 27-year-old man had “passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 1, 2014” strikes me as so distant, so bloodless, so inadequate…

Eventually my eyes drift to the daily “Hot Topics” banner at the top of the page where references to child molestation and prison sentences scroll side-by-side. Linking to current news stories, it turns out these headlines have nothing at all to do with Tyler. Still, it somehow seems apt that they have been woven into the fabric of this page where I have landed in search of confirmation of what has been so hard for me to take in.

Tyler Williams served with the 101st Air Assault, Rakkasans unit in Iraq. Above, the 101st Airborne Division during an air assault in May 2008.

Tyler Williams served with the 101st Air Assault, Rakkasans unit in Iraq. Above, the 101st Airborne Division during an air assault in May 2008.

The last I’d seen Tyler Williams was just before Thanksgiving when he appeared in my Seattle courtroom for the setting of a post-conviction appeal bond. Upon posting a modest $10,000 security, he would be free of the obligation to surrender in two weeks to begin serving the 15-month prison term I had ordered. Much of our discussion that day centered on whether it would be wiser to get the incarceration out of the way while his life was lacking in direction or to postpone it in the hopes that an appeal might be successful.

While trying to helpfully explain his options, I made it clear that I could not advise him from the bench on legal matters - such as whether I had committed reversible error from which he might benefit on appeal. But, characteristically, I didn’t hesitate to offer a recommendation of Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” which had won the National Book Award for fiction the previous day. Consciously prodding him to look beyond his depressed and depressing present, I was pleased when Tyler asked me to repeat the author’s name and seemingly intended to follow through.

I wish he had. Reading it might have brought him to a deeper realization that he was not alone in struggling with the after-effects of his honorable military service in Iraq. As difficult as the soldiers in Klay’s stories find being sent to Iraq, many of them – like Tyler – find it even tougher when it comes time to separate from the “band of brothers” and be deployed back home. As former Marine Lieutenant Klay has observed, the experience of war is “too strange to be processed alone.”

But now Tyler was dead, having met his end in a manner quintessentially and chillingly alone.

In the fall, Tyler’s three-day trial had felt like little more than a failed shot at “jury nullification” – an under-the-radar pitch for the jurors’ hearts to overrule their heads. He had shared with the jury both his valorous service and his current psychological infirmities though the key facts of the case were not much in dispute. If he had hoped to catch a break from a sympathetic jury, it was not forthcoming. The jury took a mere half hour to return its predictable one-word verdict. With Tyler’s attorney announcing his intention to seek a lighter sentence than the one prescribed in the statutory sentencing guidelines, the prosecutor requested additional time to respond.

The defense submittal had painted a sad picture, a portrait of a young man plagued by flashbacks, nightmares, agoraphobia, peer suicides and marital and financial troubles. Compelling as it was, it offered a judge little legally sufficient basis for departing from the presumptive prison term set by the legislature for this particular offense even when committed by one, like Tyler, with no criminal history.

Tyler’s depression and anxiety and their causes had not come as news to the court. They had been readily apparent in the post-arrest interview he had given to the detectives, a videotape of which had been played for the jury. They had also been alluded to by his mother in the first of two unexpected emails she had sent to me. That message, sent from the family home in Montana during Tyler’s trial, noted that he was kind, gentle and caring but that he’d returned from Iraq a different and damaged person. “There are more scars to war” she wrote “then just the physical ones you see.”

She stated with likely accuracy that her son would never have “set out to hurt anyone” and, perhaps also with eerie prescience, that, as a result of the incident on trial, “no one was hurt except for him.”

Her message being too heartfelt to ignore, I responded immediately (with cc’s to the attorneys) and let her know the jury would be weighing the case shortly. I said that “perhaps as a parent more than a judge” I had appreciated the sentiment with which she had written. With a measure of judicious distancing that seemed appropriate at the time, I termed her description of Tyler’s background and character “not inconsistent with my preliminary impressions.”

In granting the postponement of the sentencing hearing, I asked that the prosecutor not respond with kneejerk opposition but look at all the circumstances and consider agreeing to the request, particularly in light of the absence of a real victim and the somewhat manipulative role played by the investigators.

The prosecutor’s responsive presentence report told me nothing new but gave me a gentle nudge back into a proper focus. It pointed out that the case really was not at all unusual for the crime before the court, that of attempted commercial sexual abuse of a minor. Rather than being pulled into a devious trap the police had laid out to snare the innocent, it was Tyler who had set everything in motion by advertising on Craigslist that he was “looking for a hot teen.” And, when the burly, bearded detective had responded in the persona of a frisky, sexually precocious 15 year-old cheerleader, Tyler enthusiastically agreed to the proposal of “$100 for regular sex.”

The statute that Tyler violated begins with a statement of legislative intent. It proclaims that the prevention of sexual exploitation of children is an objective of “surpassing importance,” that the care of children is “a public trust” and that no abuse should be tolerated by those who might “seek commercial gain or personal gratification” through their exploitation. The cute cheerleader may have been a fantasy, but there was no escaping the hard fact that Tyler had attempted to do precisely that.

Somewhat surprisingly, a reporter and photographer showed up to cover Tyler’s trial and sentencing for a local newspaper. The case itself wasn’t newsworthy but the paper was running a series on juvenile sex trafficking and this trial would serve as a convenient example of police efforts to combat the demand side. As the longtime chair of the state’s bench-bar-press liaison committee and the author of our liberal cameras-in-court rule, I was not fazed by this effort to inform the public. It was not lost on me, however, that the publicity (including his photograph) would certainly increase the discomfort level for Tyler.

When the day for sentencing arrived in November, there was less remaining for discussion than I had anticipated a few weeks earlier. The prosecutor’s write-up had effectively countered the tug of sympathy. My memory is of delivering a tepid explanation of specific and general deterrence that was no doubt as unsatisfying to others as it was to me. No one was arguing that Tyler had to be locked up in order to protect the public from him but, in a broader sense, public protection did require the word to go out that there are heavy consequences for the crime he committed.

Similarly, the imposition of mandatory sex offender registration obligations reflected no personal judgment about Tyler but, rather, the legislature’s painting with broad brushstrokes. Still, he would be the one dragging this ball-and-chain through the community for years to come as he confronted issues such as housing and employment options. Presumptive sentences and uniform, mandatory restrictions serve a worthy purpose of restricting the discretion that may sometimes mask preferential treatment based on judicial whim or impermissible factors such as race or class. On occasion, this may cause discomfort to the judge and to others in the individual case, but to do my job, it is often necessary to step back and focus on the broader societal perspective. This is an ability ingrained in legal professionals but, for trial participants, one that is understandably hard to see and harder to accept.

Fearful of drifting away untethered on a sea of abstraction, I offered an only half-joking suggestion for a powerful deterrent: billboards and bus ads featuring the hefty detective, shirtless and hunched over his laptop with a mischievous grin. The caption might read “Here is that 15 year old blonde cheerleader you think you’re emailing.” Although others did, I don’t recall that Tyler smiled.

Then, in early December, I received my second email from Tyler’s mother, and it pierced me like a bayonet. The matter-of-fact tone of her words somehow amplified the emotional impact of her news rather than obscuring it. “I am writing to inform you that my son Tyler will not be serving his sentence as he died last night at his own hands.”

Although reading Phil Klay’s fiction can help, none of us can really know what inner demons beset Tyler. From the witness stand at trial, he described himself as “lonely, lost, depressed and self-destructive.” And that was merely at the time he placed his ad and took his cash to meet the girl. After his arrest and conviction, certainly there were layers of guilt, shame, fear and an assortment of other emotions piled on top of all that. His Mom wrote that she couldn’t begin to name all the obstacles he felt were in his path. But she knew he found them “insurmountable.”

Staring at the death notice, I recall a day some 40 years ago and the remonstrations of a law school professor. I had tried to explain a court case by saying “the judge felt that…” To my memory, I was icily informed “Young man, judges do not feel – they think, they reason, and they hold, but they never feel.” Now, as a 25-year veteran in my judicial detachment, I can firmly state that he was wrong. There may be plenty of acting involved on our stage, but the holding of judicial feelings is an undeniable reality.

Inside the courtroom, trial court judges routinely encounter a parade of raw emotions –excruciating pain, overwhelming frustration and genuine remorse among them. We are not impervious to these but must work through the natural impacts they have upon us. There is no professional prohibition on feeling empathy – and, in fact, I trumpet that ability as a valuable job skill. It provides not only helpful insights but a healthy emotional connection to others. What is decidedly off-limits, and to be severed, is any inclination to judicial action based on no more than sympathy, as we deploy the rationality with which we are primarily armed.

Outside of the courtroom – for instance in chambers where I now sit – it is a different story. Tyler’s case provides more than its share of issues for rational analysis and debate, such as how best to combat juvenile sex trafficking, the role of specialized veterans’ courts, the optimal range of judicial discretion at sentencing, the good and bad impacts of trial publicity and the balancing of deterrence and rehabilitation as criminal justice goals. Today, I haven’t the energy or inclination to do battle with these heady issues. I am not yet ready to detach from my heavy heart.

William L. Downing is a judge of the Superior Court of Washington for King County (Seattle) and a former deputy prosecutor.