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Sad Way to Learn about Criminal Justice and Neurosurgery

Quite by accident I read in my JHU alumni magazine an sad account of a man’s murder in Baltimore and how his Anna wife copes with it. Michael Anft wrote this excellent piece. Speaking of how one of the perpetrator fell through the cracks, he writes:

As Eric’s life began to spiral once again, his mother kept trying to regain control, but she had little help. Her mother and sister, both of whom had often watched her children as she worked jobs as a server at the Maryland Club and Hippodrome Theatre, had died in recent years. She contacted Patterson and asked that a counselor keep a close eye on Eric. She also asked for contacts of organizations or programs that could help keep her son off the streets after school, or offer him some guidance. Her options were limited. Several programs in the neighborhood, such as the Police Athletic League center and a Boys & Girls Club, had closed down. Other options, such as the Choice program—a well-regarded case management, mentoring, and monitoring plan based at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County that serves two hundred troubled city kids—wasn’t available, because Eric was not yet under the eye of the juvenile justice system.

“There’s no programs, nothing for kids to get into, except for trouble,” Reed says.

Apparently the victim’s wife and a friend of the victim kept an ongoing journal, so you can follow the slow-motion heartache that accompanied the man’s detiorating condition. Apparently the victim (named Zach Sowers) did not die immediately, but suffered severe trauma and brain injury. Even so, if you start reading posts from the beginning, you see the expectation from his loved ones that he would improve. Every little step was seen as a positive sign (and thankfully, Zach received some of the best medical care in the country).  For almost 6 months his condition was improving and Zach entered  rehabilitation, but he suffered  all kinds of medical complications. Yet Zach seemed to be sentient and aware of the presence of his wife and other people in the room. The journal recorded their hopes and dreams, the way the community united around this incident and yes, the emotional drain on his wife and family. He had such a hopeful future, and his wife was there to keep him company. She would always be there; that was never in doubt. Yet at some point a few months after the initial event it dawned on the  survivors that wishing for a semi-complete recovery might be foolish optimism. She began to accept the fact that her husband’s condition may never improve, that normalcy may never come to him, that maybe the best hope she had was that he would be communicative (albeit paralyzed).  Even that seemed wistful. Zach’s medical bills were piling up, and there was  a point at which his insurance coverage would run out. (That was why she and her friend were having fund-raisers like Neighbors’ Night Out).  The hard thing about private insurance is that it’s hard  to put a price on the medical care a person ought to receive (and society ought to pay for).

Zach didn’t immediately die, so there wasn’t  immediate closure. In fact, according to Michael Anft’s article, when she  heard about what happened to her husband, she was so relieved to hear definite news that she did not immediately realize how terrible his injuries were.  Strangely, there is not much anger in the journal entries; they were too focused on being there for Zach.

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When she first got to see the victims at the court, she said:

After lunch, I returned to the courthouse feeling slightly more refreshed and ready to continue with the rest of the hearing. But after ten minutes of the defense attorney ranting about Price’s psychological background, I was overwhelmed with sadness and depression. Sad that I was sitting in a courthouse because my husband was assaulted by 4 random teenagers. Sad that Price’s mother seemed to have made a genuine effort to keep her son off the street (at least she made it appear that way to the judge). Sad that I am learning more about criminal justice and neurology/neurosurgery than the average 27 year old.

Also, for those that have ill feelings toward Zach and me for our media attention (and even to those who are upset for no reason at all), I suggest you redirect your animosity elsewhere. If you’re upset over our media attention, then be active and get media attention for whatever it is you believe in. Contact the mayor, city council, whatever; just don’t contact me as my focus is on healing Zach, seeking justice for Zach and trying to make a difference. It’s ridiculous to waste time posting your jealousy for Zach’s’ attention when you could be seeking out attention for your own cause. The city is a serious war zone and to criticize me for my efforts of bringing the issue to light is completely idiotic. And unless you have lived my exact life and suffered my exact same tragedies, than you have no room to judge, and I will not waste any energy on your ignorance.

Rather than go to trial, the prosecutor did  plea bargaining. Sanft reports:

Prosecutors say they had solid reasons for pursuing the plea deal that left three of the four Sowers assailants eligible for parole in four years. Among other wounds, Sowers incurred something doctors call “diffuse axonal injury” in his brain, the result of microscopic damage to nerves. Magnetic resonance images revealed no blotches of deadened neural activity in the brain to point to, no medical “smoking gun” that would sway a jury. What’s more, the neighbor who reported the crime couldn’t pick Ramos out of a police lineup, and police lifted only one Ramos fingerprint from the roof of the Sentra. Prosecutors say that an attempted murder charge against Ramos could have petered out in a jury room.

Anna writes shortly thereafter:

If you’re going to commit a crime, do it in Baltimore City.” This is a saying I heard a few months ago and I certainly learned the validity of it on Monday morning as the plea agreement was reached without my consent. Actually, I think the saying was told to me as a joke. I certainly wasn’t laughing. I truly wish justice meant “an eye for an eye.” I have absolutely no sympathy for these four defendants. I hate them and I will hate them forever. I will never forgive and never forget and no one can judge me for that. Because of them, I have no husband. I come home to an empty, dark house and a mailbox full of medical bills. And what do they get? Well, because we live in Baltimore City, Ramos gets only 40 years for: carjacking a woman in Elkton, attempting to murder my husband, conspiring to rob my husband, robbing my husband and robbing a woman the day after Zach with a gun (Price had the gun)! The 40 years Ramos got was a concurrent sentence for all of these horrific offenses!! And same for the other 3 savages. They were given 8 years for basically the same thing, minus the carjacking. All 4 were involved in a separate robbery with a handgun after they attacked Zach, and all they got was 8 measly years! As much as I am disgusted by the “stop snitching” subculture, I hope that subculture’s own thugs live up to their word this time.

As justified as her expression was at that moment, I want to reiterate that this was only a small part of the journal. The journal –which served a practical purpose of keeping the community informed — ended up becoming a testament to a woman’s love (and  the love offered by other family members). What they went through was horrifying, and yet they kept their feelings of compassion and hope and even a sense of humor. As I read this journal, I find myself wondering what would happen if I were a crime victim or if another person close to me were killed; it would devastate us, but it would not kill us; we would survive, we would never lose our ability to connect with other human beings.  I would probably put up a similar kind of blog. Anna and Zach spent a few years together — time which seems all the more precious in retrospect.

I lived in Baltimore for one brief year. Crime used to be bad,  but not this bad.   Yet it was the first time I confronted the realities of urban living. A woman down the street was murdered, and we were all shaken. Once, while walking  to a party in downtown Baltimore, a crackhead tried to sell me crack. It was scary, and yet this was the first time I had lived in a city where people actually walked to work, bought groceries from the corner grocery store, had a neighborhood farmer’s market,  took the bus regularly, walked through seedy neighborhoods. One of my favorite moments during my stay was walking with friends to the old Baltimore Oriole stadium. It was  a 30-45 minute walk, and the neighborhoods were old and had personality. Houston, by contrast, doesn’t allow these kinds of interactions.  Houstonians stare at each other through car windows and locked doors at red lights, and occasionally at supermarkets. If a person died in Houston, the only way you’re going to hear about it is to watch the local news.

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