The impact of impact statements
Published 6:06 pm Tuesday, March 3, 2020
Last week in Magnolia, convicted killer Cory Godbolt got the death penalty. Four times.
It was a dramatic trial with sequestered jurors and long days of testimony. Sitting there among reporters, I had a notepad and a front-row seat to the proceedings, but the part I’ll remember most is something scheduled during the sentencing phase of this capital murder trial — the victim-impact statements.
That’s when family members who sit silent while others plead their case finally get a chance to speak. It’s when victims get a voice.
The first one to give an impact statement was a wife. She described her slain deputy husband as a singer who greeted each day with lines from “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” She said there’s a 13-year-old at her house who wishes he could hear his dad sing that again. Just once.
Backed by a big screen photo of the smiling uniformed deputy, she answered a probing lawyer’s hard question about suffering.
“I lost the one person I knew would be there for me,” came the clear reply. Her words stirred a young lawman at the end of my row to bow his head and weep.
That wife was followed by her mother-in-law. This lady recalled how her 6-foot-5 son used to kiss her on the top of her head rather than her cheek. He was the kind of guy who in high school wasn’t ashamed to say “I love you” to his mother in front of his friends.
“He told them he never knew when it might be the last time he’d get that chance,” she explained. This mother also reminded the courtroom that the deputy’s sister went through with her wedding just two days after her brother was buried. He was supposed to walk her down the aisle, and since he was an ordained minister, he was supposed to do the marrying part, too.
Thirty-three months later, time hasn’t healed all wounds. The deputy’s mother made the difficult decision to move from the town where she was born — the town where she raised her children — to escape the memories.
Next, parents told about losing their 18-year-old son, a football player the colleges were courting. His prom picture flashed across the screen while the dad acknowledged a hard fact about life these days: his family’s laughs don’t last as long.
“We rejoice, but then we are reminded of our loss,” he said, adding that “some things we must accept, but we just don’t know how to yet.”
His wife says their lives have been changed forever.
“It’s a daily struggle just to get up in the morning,” she admitted. “But I go on for my family.”
The impact statements continued with a proud momma remembering an 11-year-old who danced and drew. “People ask me how many children I have,” she said. “I still say three.”
The lawyer handed her some photos to identify. She beamed in response. “Oh, yes. These are pictures of my baby boy.”
Then a grandmother who misses riding to church with that same boy told about him sounding out hard words in his Sunday school lesson. He was a kid who liked to cook, a kitchen trainee who could crack eggs and mix cornbread. “And taste,” she smiled.
Another mom, gray-haired and bearing the brunt of a stroke, spoke of her great sadness. “I’ve lost a husband, a father and a mother,” she said, “but losing a child turned me upside down.”
When her granddaughter took the stand, jurors had to lean forward and listen to words that spilled out between deep breaths. The young woman could hardly speak for crying. She’s motherless and missing the encouraging texts she got each morning.
“Now, I can’t call her, I can’t talk to her,” she sobbed, describing the last shooting victim as a woman who’d get out of bed to take care of other people “even when she was sick.”
So these brave family members summed up two-and-a-half years of pain in two hours. They tried to put into words the effects of what prosecutors called an “especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel crime.” In the process, they cried. They questioned. They lamented.
In fact, their victim-impact statements expressed the woes of a fallen world like lines from a psalm of lament — the grief, the injustice, the confusion, the despair. But in Psalms, lament doesn’t stop there. It finds its way to God.
Bending toward the microphone, one heartbroken mother told of such a journey. She admitted it was hard to make it after her daughter’s murder, but “I turned to Jesus, and He helped me.”
That’s about the time a preacher who was sitting behind the row of journalists offered his own impact statement.
A very hearty amen.
Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.