by Morrow Vincent
In our criminal court system, once the defendant has been found guilty—convicted—of his/her heinous crime, said defendant then moves to the “Penalty Phase”, which may be completed the same day the verdict comes in, or sometime in the future. But whenever it does occur, the defense attorney frequently offers “mitigating circumstances” for the jury’s (& in some jurisdictions, the judge’s) consideration—factors which the attorney hopes will persuade the jury to show leniency in the sentence they hand down. Mitigating circumstances are as many and varied as people themselves—and they are not always, as the cynical believe, a trumped up strategy to sway the emotions of the jurors.
If the defendant is exceedingly lucky, he or she may escape the death penalty and receive LWOP (life without parole)—as one example in the most severe of cases. In rare and miraculous instances, defendants have received probation and community service—with no jail time. It doesn’t equal an acquittal, doesn’t erase the crime and their guilt, and doesn’t wipe their slate clean. But, I’d guess most of those folks are on their knees, night and day, thanking their God—and the jurors—for affording them great mercy, rather than a harsh justice they may well have deserved. And in addition to minding their P’s and Q’s, I’d bet they remember the crime they committed every single day, never able to forgive themselves—though others may.
In the realm of ordinary human relationships, however, “mitigating circumstances” may not be sufficient to lessen the sentence when we’ve committed an offense against someone we love and care about. I know this from recent and painful experience.
My mitigating circumstances were that I was under severe stress—and I was greatly concerned about the level of my friend’s stress—there was no malicious intent involved, in fact I’d had no intent at all to do what I did. I wasn’t thinking very clearly when I committed a series of acts in the course of one day—a day I’d give just about anything to erase. If I were in a criminal court, my defense attorney would surely plead that I was “temporarily insane” on the day in question—maybe the jurors would see that as truthful, maybe not.
But there’s no jury, nor judge, in my case. My friend is the injured party, and it doesn’t matter what the reasons for my actions were. My honest confession, my sincere apologies—and the mitigating circumstances—do not carry sufficient weight to spare me severe punishment. I can’t blame him—or argue that he isn’t right to feel disappointed, angry, hurt and betrayed. I must take responsibility for my actions, and the damage they caused.
My crime was that I violated his privacy and trust—something we’d talked about on a number of occasions. His words echo in my ears and heart: “once trust is broken, gone—it can’t be repaired, restored, regained”. I agreed with him every time he said it—because I shared his viewpoint. And even though he’d said he couldn’t imagine me doing anything that would end our friendship—he even used the phrase “mitigating circumstances”, in the sense that he would consider them—neither one of us ever expected such a terrible thing would happen.
As I tearfully confessed and apologized to him, I knew it was all over. I told him the events of the day just “snowballed”. Even as I was committing these acts of betrayal, it felt like I was a freight train without brakes—in my “sane” mind, I’d have never done them; and even though I knew what I was doing was wrong, I believed it was out of concern for him (and my highly stressed state of mind)—not malice.
But in my heart I was certain my goose was cooked—I’d dealt a death blow to our friendship, no matter what the circumstances were. I was prepared—sort of—for the most severe consequences. And they were quick in coming—mostly because I pushed for them (if I was going to hang, I wanted it to be over fast). There is no restitution I can make, nor sufficient apologies—I will live with this for whatever time I have left, and never forgive myself.
So, today I’m wiser but indescribably bereft. The gift of a special friendship may only come around once in a lifetime, if then. I caution all readers to put a guard on your lips—and consider carefully the cost you may pay in your close relationships, if you should make a stupid mistake because you didn’t take time, and breath, to THINK.
I now make a public apology to my friend—and wish him peace, good will and better friends, always. I never meant to harm you in any way.