It wouldn't have surprised me if prosecutor Jeffrey Lee had walked into gun court and stuck to script, maybe even taken a harder line after the mother of a guy he was prosecuting brought her story to the newspaper.
I hadn't said anything when Greta McWhorter told me who was prosecuting her son, charged with interfering with police after they stopped his car in Hartford last month and found a loaded gun on his passenger. But when I heard Lee's name, I flinched. And when I talked to her lawyer, it was clear he was worried: "You know his history..."
The history is, in January Lee agreed to drop a gun charge against Steven Debow, a first-offender headed to Afghanistan with his Guard unit. The next day, Debow allegedly killed two people in a bodega stickup.
Let me pause here for a minute. I agreed with Lee's call back then. As easy as it would have been to think that he had been tragically lenient, Lee had done what the justice system is supposed to do: give a break to someone who seemed to deserve it.
But I wondered if the "what ifs" would affect the way he did his job; if the guy already known for his tough stance against gun crimes would turn rigid. And why not? It's human nature not to want to get burned again.
When we talked this week, Lee insisted the Debow case hadn't changed the way he works.
"If I had to do it again," he said, "I would do the same thing."
So the hard-liner still looks for chances to give people who deserve it an opportunity to set their lives back on track.
That's what he thought he was doing for 23-year-old Kofi McWhorter, a young man from Bloomfield with no criminal record, two loving parents and an otherwise bright future.
Lee offered him a few options, including spending 30 days in pre-trial detention before being given a special form of probation that would erase the charges from his record.
It could be worse, I thought. But then, that's easy to say when it's not your kid headed to jail.
Inside the courthouse Friday, Kofi stood beside his father, Griffess. It had been weeks of sleepless nights. Last night, Griffess said, he just gave up on sleep altogether. They had considered going for the detention. He hated the thought of his youngest son with a record.
"But we just couldn't risk it," he said, his hands shaking. "We couldn't risk what something like that could do to him." They'd take a misdemeanor plea deal with no jail time.
But when they got to court that afternoon, Lee said he wanted to talk to Greta. Griffess and Kofi waited, staring at the door. "How long has it been? Ten minutes?" Griffess said. "Feels like more," Kofi said.
When Greta and their lawyer finally emerged, the lawyer told them Lee was offering another option: He would not object to a special form of probation that would erase the charges if Kofi shared his experiences with impressionable kids. If he made it clear to them what a frightening experience this had been, being handcuffed, worrying his parents, wondering if in one afternoon of hanging out with the wrong person, he'd thrown his life away.
Griffess took a step back and breathed deeply. "Lord have mercy. Thank God." He wiped his eyes and looked at his son as if it was the first time he'd ever laid eyes on him.
Kofi still wanted to give Lee his side, wanted to tell him the cops were wrong. But Lee told him to just listen; he was getting a chance here.
And he should remember that you only get so many of those in life.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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