Covering trials I often find myself rooting for the harshest punishment possible when facts of the case emerge. I inwardly applaud a jury’s correct guilty verdict (in 10 years I can count incorrect ones on one hand) and wish the defendant the worst. But that’s the barbaric in me, the primitive, when atoms from the gutter of stone-age cave walls flare up in my bile–when vengeance has the better of justice. Shame at my wantonness sets in soon enough.
And anyway juries don’t punish. They only decide whether the person is guilty or not. It’s one of the many discordant parts of “the best judicial system in the world,” as I hear some lawyers or judges preach to juries to this day–what public defender would dare object even to such a demonstrably objectionable breach–that jurors are not told what the punishment might be. They have no idea what price their guilty verdict carries. They’d be more lenient if they did. The deception is a built-in safeguard against jurors’ better angels.
I like to think that’s why sentencing hearings are usually scheduled weeks after a verdict, to let cooler heads prevail. But that’s not how it works. It’s only to allow for “pre-sentencing investigations.” It allows the system to kick in. And yes, at that point the wonderful, admirable human beings who make up the criminal justice system, mothers and fathers, lovers and mentors, co-workers and friends, become a system. A human being’s condemnation calculus itself dehumanizes into just another court acronym, the “PSI.” It tabulates an inmate’s perdition in years and months down to a decimal point, minus that ultimate joke on those sentenced to life: “credit for time served.” It’s the range of prison time within which the judge may exercise that life-ending power.
The guidelines usually prevail. The guidelines are written not by those reasoning, well-tempered judges we see in courtrooms, but by politicians channeling voters’ bloodlust and trading misery for electoral fortune. They’re not looking for justice, just vengeance. That’s what the people want. That’s how primitive atoms become law, it’s how law speaks in inhumane, indifferent sentences, and how judges, most of their discretion pilfered by lawmakers, are made executioners.
So I rarely leave a sentencing hearing at the courthouse without feeling a bit disgusted by the result. Florida’s sentencing guidelines are more Hammurabi than Beccaria–more retributive, more life-for-an-eye, than justice proportioned and preventive. To think that we live in a society that aspires to be called civilized, and that has such a thing as life without parole, that sentences children or the mentally ill to life, or that sentences anyone to die–that sanctions government murder: it doesn’t compute.
But something remarkable happened in court on Thursday. From the death of a child, a life was saved. It was remarkable because the life saved was that of the young man who had caused the death of the child.
Joey Renn was 21. Logan Goodman was 14. They were friends. Joey was also reckless. On a January evening in 2020, he took Logan for a ride on his Suzuki motorcycle. He sped through the Woodlands, that twisty part of old Palm Coast. Logan’s last moments on earth went by him at 103 miles per hour. Joey lost control on a Blare Castle curve and crashed into a utility pole. Logan was killed.
I remember covering that crash. My family and I used to live in the Woodlands. Blare Castle was part of our near-daily walking and biking circuit. Like all neighborhoods we live in no matter what police stats say, it meant security and permanence. It was the sort of place where nothing happened, until it did.
Even without the personal attachment, I’ve never known any such thing as a routine crash scene, no such thing as a routine fatality, anymore than there could be any such thing as a routine life. I’ve lost count of the number of fatal crash scenes I’ve covered, but I still feel the same sense of revulsion and disbelief every time I report from one. It’s among the most offensive things I cover–a massacre, in the aggregate of years and scenes, and every lost life an innocent life no matter what the circumstances are, no matter who’s at fault or who isn’t, no matter who was drinking, drugging, speeding, or just sitting there, waiting to make a turn only for a life to be ended literally in a flash–the car ignited in that one–because of a trucker’s rear-ending inattention. Or because of a young and stupid motorcyclist’s recklessness.
It goes beyond revulsion when the victim is a child, to something more like revolt, and this part has become routine at crash scenes involving children: the cursing and contempt of whatever god may, on that off chance, exist as magnanimously imagined by our inadequate imaginations. What magnanimity in those wrecks, what forbearance, when all there is is cruelty? Of course the thinking is juvenile, which is probably why it also feels so satisfying, kind of like those primitive feelings when the clerk reads the verdict. But what else is there? What serious, human response can there possibly be? Certainly not thoughts and prayers, that added insult to impotence.
Well, one response is what we saw in court Thursday. Joey Renn walked into court facing what others in his position faced, and had to serve: years in prison. The law requires it. Seven to nine years, as the judge told him. Until he learned of the deal his lawyer was formalizing right then in court, he could not possibly have banked on the saving grace that would be extended to him. He could not possibly have imagined that it would be extended by the father of the boy whose life he ended. But it was.
Robert Goodman, Logan’s father, did not want to see Joey go to prison. He didn’t see what ruining a young man’s life would accomplish. The state could not agree to no jail time, as Logan’s grandmother wanted. So Joey got six months in jail, and one week a year back in jail around the anniversary of Logan’s death, for the next 14 years, the duration of Joey’s probation. No one around the courthouse would’ve seen something like that in recent memory. Even the judge was so surprised that he had to ask Robert Goodman specifically if that’s what he wanted. It was. Goodman spoke simply, haltingly, but in that moment he was more eloquent than Demosthenes.
This was justice, not vengeance. This was a father’s humanity, literally giving a young man his life back, when he had every right to take it away. It felt like all the Beatitudes combined and packaged in one sublime gesture, these Beatitudes we hear so rarely and see enacted almost never.
And it made me mourn. Mourn for those defendants who don’t have a Robert Goodman speaking for them. It made me wonder about a justice system that can empower dignity out of tragedy, but a justice system that also can, and more often does, the reverse, because Goodmans are the exception, and because most of those who do wrong have no one in their corner, which is precisely why they do wrong in the first place.
This is where victim-impact statements and the involvement of victims’ families in deciding a defendant’s punishment unravels that other indefensible discordance of the justice system. What if Joey Renn did not present with that rail-thin innocence plucked out of a suburban street with hoops and grandpas grilling on Sundays? What if he was a bedraggled slob, a person of color (whose disadvantage in court is endlessly documented), a loudmouth? How do those outward characteristics in any way alter the pointlessness of imprisoning a man for many years for the same offense?
And what if, instead of Robert Goodman, Joey had to deal with the kind of man who spoke at another sentencing hearing just weeks ago here, where Joshua Carver faced up to 30 years for a hit-and-run with a death. The witness in that case was all Bible-thumping vengeance. He wanted the max. He wanted Carver to suffer. It was embarrassing. It was Exhibit A of man’s inhumanity to man. Thankfully for Carver he had a noble family in his corner, and he had Judge Chris France, not known for his magnanimity, who limited the sentence to five years (still much harsher than necessary). But even judges will exercise what discretion they have only to the extent that the testimony they’re presented allows them to. And that discretion defers to the visceral.
It happens all the time. Prosecutors reach plea deals giving disproportionate weight to what the victim’s family wants. The defendant can end up either with a Goodman on the other side, or a gang of rage. Under the appealing but misguided credo of victims’ rights, a person’s sentence is largely decided not by reason or law, not by proportion and objectivity, but by the character of whatever kind of family end up on the prosecution’s side, assuming there is a family. (The least lucky ones are the abandoned ones, the ones with not even an angry family’s buffer between them and the prosecution’s harshest penalties.) That’s not even punishment anymore, retributive or not. It’s Ox-Bow vigilantism cross-dressing as lady justice.
Joey Renn found his savior. It was not god. It was his fellow man. He is among the lucky ones. It does not diminish the tragedy of Logan’s death. It does not diminish a deeper tragedy, and an ongoing one: the fact that Robert Goodman’s grace is the exception, when it should be the rule.