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Halloween justice

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I stood outside the Wake County Courthouse. A cow walked up, reached into its udder produced and lit a cigarette. It was Halloween.

The night before, I'd had an impassioned conversation with a woman with connections to the sad case of Armando Ortez and decided to attend his sentencing phase.

Ortez had already been convicted by a Wake County jury of stabbing laundromat owner Nguyen Truong 56 times during commission of a robbery. There were three people involved in the crime and there was contradictory evidence whether Ortez had actually done the stabbing. Nevertheless, the D.A.'s office and Wake Assistant District Attorneys Becky Holt and Melanie Shekita pressed for the death penalty.

Before deciding if he should be executed, the jury had to decide if he was mentally retarded. The new law preventing the state from executing the mentally impaired puts the bar at an I.Q of 70. It came down to some sort of numbers game about Mr. Ortez's capabilities--either 65 or 77 (depending on whom you believe); 23 and beaten every day of his life judging from the tale of scars under his close-cropped hair; starved, and taught to inhale a variety of volatile substances including floor adhesives along with whatever he could get his hands on.

His mommy used to squirt hot sauce in his eyes.

The jury had deliberated for parts of three days, and when I got there they deliberated still, Ortez led like a mule before the court when the jury would enter and leave the courtroom--he, silent, with a defeated shuffle, not fully (it appeared) clued in as to what was going on.

The court was in a jovial mood. It was Friday and a weekend of Halloween parties was in the wind. To cut the boredom, Judge Jolly (who was) told humorous anecdotes about the old days.

Ortez's attorney, Stephen Freeman, sat slumped at his table, a weary expression on his face.

"I'm tired," he told me.

Ortez sat.

The court reporter blurted, "There's a gorilla walking down Salisbury Street." Sure enough. The deputies and court officers crowded around the slit-like window giggling at the show.

The new law had prescribed no manner for dealing with a hung jury--which was exactly what happened. Six to six, right down the middle. With three days of deliberation and the count heading toward the middle, no chance of a verdict.

Both sides made their plea. Defense wanted Judge Jolly to go for non-capital--life without parole. Prosecution was holding out for a mistrial and another shot at killing the man, they contending that his ability to master the game of chess was evidence of his competence.

A 15-minute break later, Judge Jolly reached his conclusion, a decision he says he made with reluctance, to remand Ortez to the Department of Correction for the rest of his life. Good news, I guess--trick or treat.

The deputy slipped up behind the short silent man, concealing Ortez with his much larger size, pulled on a pair of gloves, and when the judge leveled a glare at Ortez and tersely declared the verdict, he slipped the cuffs on and led Ortez to the dark hole where he will stay away forever.

In the lobby, jurors stood around, hugging each other, some quietly sobbing.

I stepped out into the brilliant sunshine. A devil strolled by. There was a question that hung in the air like the dust of that dying, surreal day and I could not answer it. What perverse justice does the state obtain from killing not just a sad and damaged person like Ortez, but anyone? The more I thought about it, the less sense I could make of the peculiarly barbaric American practice.

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