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.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.
I was thinking the same thing when I read that. That is such a fitting punishment and something he will have to think about 1 week a year. My only disagreement is that it should be 1 week for the rest of his life. I definitely applaud the Judges compassion not to ruin a young man’s life who I’m sure will never forget his mistake and will need many years of therapy
103+ mph in a residential with a minor on the back. All I ask just 2 things that anyone that thinks there should be leniency. The 1st, they need to go outside their home & stand in the street, look down to each end of it and try to imagine what a motor vehicle accelerating from 0-100 mph would have to look like at any point in the length of the road, even as a straight line. Some of today’s vehicles can do that from a dead stop launch in 1/4 mile. Many can exceed that speed in 1/4 mile. The only road that has that traffic capability is I-95 really. And the speed limit out there is 70 mph, with traffic pushing that by 10 mph, quite often 15-20 mph.
The 2nd, break out a calculator and do the financial for time & money that this is going to take to just break even on property damages & funeral expenses. I’m all for learning lessons in life, but this is beyond that. I hope that anyone reading the article(s) of this & similar takes a moment to reflect on the costs, human lives, property damages, fines & penalties and reflect on even a break even point excluding the loss of life. That alone should be enough to slow down, leave space and be a socially responsible motorist.
When I come across these types, I have no problem slowing down and pulling over and letting them go do what they’re going to do to themselves & their next potential victim(s). Heck, I don’t even want the tire burnout types around my home & residential neighborhood. When I first moved here, it was a nice quiet area. All I hear now are high performance vehicles roaring out on Belle Terre at the very least, FCSO sirens in hot pursuit with the increased growth. The news headlines get worse & worse. And they’re building more & more each day. Brace yourselves for even more of these types of tragic stories, the village idiots have yet to weed themselves out completely. Because the attractiveness of the area’s growth will lure that element and there will certainly be a new breed of village idiot coming to a neighborhood near you. Sheriff Staly was just approved for additional law enforcement anticipating the next round of growth. He knows what’s coming and so should the rest of us. Sounds like a negative view ? Perhaps, then again just a realistic one. Obviously we all hope for the best, yet should always be prepared for the worst.
Soon enough it will be 50 years since LE 101. I wonder if others who knew the faculty at the then DBCC, and UCF, recall their (the faculty) names.
When I read the title of this essay, I immediately thought of Fonda’s soliloquy in Ox-Bow. In the times we live in now, I would include this too:
judgment at nuremberg verdict
Anyway, you’ve indeed stated the matter very well. I would call your words important.
Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.
— Benjamin Franklin
Ray W. says
Thank you, Mr. Tristam.
To emphasize Mr. Tristam’s point that some Florida legislators have a propensity for “channeling voters’ bloodlust and trading misery for electoral fortune”, one need only watch the video of a Florida legislator sobbing as he laments his difficulty with having to follow a Supreme Court mandate that legislation be passed requiring that jury recommendations for imposition of the death penalty be unanimously agreed to by all 12 jurors. The unconstitutional original version of the statute required a simple majority vote by the jurors. The idea that just one person might end up serving a life sentence instead of execution was just too much for the Florida legislator to accept.
When I was an SAO division chief, I told many young prosecutors that one of the most difficult parts of their job would be knowing when a 10-day county jail sentence would be enough to deter a person from ever committing a crime again, as opposed to knowing that a different person would not be deterred at all by a 20-year prison sentence.
Historically, prosecutors were tasked with the professional duty to act as a gatekeeper of all evidence that the State presents to a court, as part of their oath to seek justice and not vengeance. That professional duty occasionally included acting as a buffer between a vengeful victim, or more commonly the vengeful family member of the victim, and the accused (Once, a probationary deputy sheriff had a cuffed defendant run from his grasp towards a cruiser driven by another deputy who was responding to the scene. The responding deputy said that the cuffed defendant ran up to his cruiser and surrendered, announcing to him that the probationary deputy was a jerk and that he didn’t want to be around him anymore. The probationary deputy, when asked by the defendant’s attorney during his deposition what type of sentence he wanted, turned to me and asked what the maximum sentence could be under the guidelines for escape. I told him eight years in prison, consecutive to whatever sentence he got for the crime that led to his arrest. He said he wanted eight years. I immediately replied that the defendant was going to jail for running away from him, but it would not be an eight-year consecutive prison sentence. That was the old days. Today, an elected sheriff might denounce me in an open letter during a press conference and I might be fired by the elected state attorney. But fear dominates today’s prosecutors. Not in the old days). Now, however, after the legislature first enacted legislation emphasizing victim’s rights and then the public voted to adopt a constitutional amendment establishing victim’s rights, prosecutors have largely abandoned their previous role as evidentiary gatekeepers. But not all of them. I do recall one prosecutor in a recent first-degree murder case telling me early in the case that she had watched the interrogation video of the defendant until he clearly invoked his right to remain silent. Even though the interrogating deputy kept the interrogation going for hours afterwards, with the defendant occasionally re-invoking his right to remain silent, the prosecutor had stopped watching because she didn’t want to slip up in front of the grand jury and refer to illegally obtained evidence. She left the office shortly after the grand jury indicted the defendant, but I never asked her why she left. That approach to prosecution is a rarity today. Most prosecutors take the approach that all evidence is admissible until a judge tells them it is inadmissible, forgetting that it is their duty under their oath to determine what is inadmissible when the evidence is clearly inadmissible. Zealous advocacy allows for challenging close calls, but when evidence is clearly inadmissible, prosecutors should not attempt to use it in any proceeding.
As an aside, when I was a senior prosecutor, a judge asked me why I only occasionally recommended any particular sentence whenever a non-negotiated plea was presented to the court or when a jury rendered a guilty verdict (most cases resolve by negotiated pleas, but not all of them). I replied that my job was to get the case to him. His job was to impose sentence. Whatever sentence he imposed was usually fine with me, because I believed that he knew what he was doing. I added that whenever I were to ask for a particularly harsh sentence on an open plea, I expected him to recognize that I thought that the particular case was unique and that I believed that the particular defendant really needed a long prison sentence.
In my years as a prosecutor, I only once initiated an appeal of a judge’s sentence. Another prosecutor had reduced an attempted murder case to an aggravated battery with a F/A charge in front of a different judge, in which a pot grower had been ambushed on a spoil island in the intracoastal by men who intended to steal his crop. One of the pot thieves had shot the grower during the fight and the grower had to swim across the river to get away. That prosecutor then recommended that the shooter get a probationary sentence. He left the office and I took his spot. I prosecuted the shooter on an allegation of violation of probation and asked for a top of the guidelines prison sentence. The judge imposed a much shorter prison sentence that was once again below the guidelines. I appealed. The appellate court upheld the sentence, finding it was within the judge’s discretion to continue to go below the guidelines when the first prosecutor had recommended the original light sentence.
WOW, I applauded the father of the victim. Forgiveness. I dont think it will ease the pain. I do believe it will make him feel better. The killer have to live with his unwise decision for the rest of his life.
Janet sullivan says
Thank you, to all involved. I suspect the act of grace bestowed upon Joey Renn will be more impactful than the entire prison term the law would have allowed. Anyone in Joey Renn’s orbit for the rest of his long life will benefit from this.
Throughout my nearly 3 decade career working in the criminal justice system starting way back in the 70s, I constantly heard criticism from crime victims that they felt the only one who had any rights after a crime had been committed was the person arrested. Many people felt that the system failed to adequately recognize the rights of victims, and often the harshest criticism was aimed at judges during and after court proceedings were completed. Since that time there have been quite a few laws passed in this nation that elevate the rights of victims so they are not forgotten in the inter-workings of the system once a person has been arrested and slowly transitions through the often cumbersome criminal justice process. There were laws passed that severely limited or outright prohibited a judge from using discretion during sentencing, and other laws giving judges too much discretion. As we have seen the pendulum swing wildly in both directions trying to prioritize several competing interests such as justice, compassion, deterrence, and fairness, we all have our own ideas about where the right balance of the scales of justice should be. The truth is that while the American system of criminal justice is far superior than that in many countries throughout the world, it is not perfect and I doubt anyone will ever devise a system that perfectly addresses those competing interests we seek to balance. But as long as there are sentencing guidelines for judges to follow, it is my opinion that judges SHOULD in fact at least impose a sentence within the written guidelines. Especially when a life has been needlessly taken as in this case due to the defendant’s criminally reckless behavior, I would have preferred the judge to sentence the defendant on the low end of the sentence guideline based on the recommendation from victim’s family because as much as compassion should be a consideration, so should the concepts of justice and deterrence. Maybe the light sentence will be enough to deter this defendant from doing anything so stupid and careless in the future, but one thing that I believe is one of the most important outcomes of any criminal proceeding is that there MUST be consequences that have an impact on future behavior. I’m just not convinced that the sentence imposed in this case is strong enough to prioritize that. I hope I am proved wrong.
Ray W. says
Thank you, Skibum, for your comprehensive analysis of the criminal justice system. I appreciate your insights gained from so many years invested in that system. I wish to ask why you did not address the role vengeance often plays in the courtroom, a role that is central to Mr. Tristam’s theme? I assert that many victim complaints regarding a judge’s decision arise from a desire for vengeance, but I accept the argument that many other times victims have good grounds to question a judge’s sentencing decision. I do, however, disagree with your assessment that victims were forgotten in the system. They were never forgotten. Even as a misdemeanor prosecutor in DeLand in 1987, my standing practice was to set a victim meeting in person whenever a victim called in to my legal assistant to talk about their case. I offered to meet with them before or after work if that was the only way they could meet with me. Other prosecutors in the office eventually began calling me the Teflon prosecutor because I never received a written victim complaint (President Reagan was commonly referred to as the Teflon president in those days, so the phrase was more widely used then). When I was one of the 45 or so prosecutors whose resignations were accepted in one day just before Tanner took office, I was given a taped-together paper vest with a bullseye inked on it, with other prosecutors joking that Tanner had blown the Teflon right off me. Everyone knew a purge was coming, but most did not think it would be that widespread.
Mr. Tristam includes in his article a link to a Wikipedia entry for Cesare Beccaria, the 18th century Italian legal philosopher whose ideas greatly influenced our founding fathers. Beccaria’s ideal was fairly straightforward: Punishment should not last one day longer than that necessary to deter a person from committing a particular crime. Any punitive sentence longer than that term was deemed cruel. Hence, the insertion of the “cruel and unusual” language into our federal Constitution.
As an aside, Florida’s constitutional language for many decades was “cruel or unusual”, which allowed Florida courts to declare unconstitutional portions of statutes that met either one or both individual descriptions. Florida voters adopted the federal standard some 25 or 30 years ago.
During my decades spent in the trenches of the criminal court system I repeatedly listened as various detectives and patrol officers opined that the answer was to impose ever harsher sentences. From their point of view, the longer the better, though I knew that some officers did not subscribe to that thought process.
In the end, I suppose that you hit the nail on the head with your assessment that our individual worldviews form our personal reactions to judicial sentences, with each person forming his or her own perfect sentence for each criminal act. Some commenters have stated that they think death is the only answer for all homicide cases, including this one. Others gravitate towards the other end of the spectrum. But a system based on individual wants and desires would be chaotic, to say the least. One need only look at FlaglerLive comments posted to just about each and every article detailing a judge’s sentencing decision to understand the existence of a wide variety of opinions about sentences. Judges are incredibly important to our concept of justice, but even judges differ widely in their responses to crimes. It was accepted among lawyers that a significant reason behind the creation of the Florida Supreme Court’s original set of sentencing guidelines was the consistently harsh sentencing practices of two Putnam County circuit court judges in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. Possibly dissatisfied with the judicially created guidelines, Florida’s legislature imposed its own set of sentencing guidelines in the early ’90’s. No matter the source, each set of guidelines included language permitting departures from guideline sentences. Originally, there were limits on both upward and downward departures, but the legislature eventually took care of that by permitting all sentences to include the statutory maximum. No more need for prosecutors to have to argue for upward departures by basing the argument on legally acceptable grounds. One can argue that vengeful sentencing options are now unlimited while merciful sentencing options remain constrained by legislatively approved limits.
Thank you, Ray, for both of your comprehensive and well thought out comments. It is obvious that because of your long criminal justice career, that you have insights into our criminal justice system that most others could only dream of attaining, and I applaud your perseverance and effort to obtain justice for crime victims. In answer to your question to me, I did not address the role of vengeance as a criminal justice concept because vengeance has no role in our nation’s system of justice. As I’m sure you will agree, we do not recognize the “eye for an eye” system in the U.S., nor do we allow victims to name the punishment someone receives after being found guilty. That is the simple answer to a complex phenomenon that many people to this day still believe should be part of our system of justice. And if we ever did allow vengeance to be a part of our system, can you imagine just how many vigilante mobs would be roaming the streets of our cities, trying to raid jails in order to lynch suspects even before a trial date was set? We have to fiercely abide by principles of fairness and order to protect society from themselves because too many people are incapable of thinking about justice without the misguided inclusion of vengeance as a stated goal.
Ray W. says
Thank you, Skibum.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
Well you have only two choices.
1. Government funded enforcement or,
Which appeals to you?