I went to a sentencing several weeks ago – my first ever. The man being sentenced, William Hill, was convicted by a jury of brutally beating Jacob Gerstle, an 81-year-old member of my community in Washington Heights, in 2006.
The 6-foot-7 Hill had beaten Gerstle so severely, before taking his money, that Gerstle died from his injuries a few days later.
Hill was linked to the crime by his confessions as well as by surveillance video from the lobby showing someone of Hill’s size, age and race following Gerstle into the elevator. Hill’s first trial in 2008 ended in a hung jury. The second jury found him guilty of robbery and murder.
When I entered the courtroom, which was packed with my community members, I grew slightly nervous. The judge was casually sitting behind his desk, wearing neither a robe nor a jacket.
I’m “old school” and figured that a judge like this might view Hill as an unfortunate victim of societal evils who deserved the most lenient punishment possible. Indeed, Hill’s lawyer made this very argument. Hill only turned to a life of crime when his mother died, he argued, and in sentencing Hill one had to keep in mind what a sorry life he lived.
Before Hill’s lawyer spoke, Gerstle’s son had a few words to say. He told the court what an extraordinary man his father was. He spoke of the food pantry he ran, of the many kids he helped send to camp. Anyone in the community who needed anything, he said, would come to his father.
Touchingly, Gerstle’s son also related how his father used to keep a blanket, food and money in his car for the homeless person who regularly slept in it. The homeless person and Gerstle never met, but Gerstle knew someone was sleeping in his car and didn’t want him/her (he didn’t know if the person was male or female) to be hungry or cold.
Gerstle’s lawyer also spoke, recounting how Hill had clearly confessed to the crime and deserved the maximum sentence – 25 years to life in prison. Hill had mugged other individuals and did not deserve leniency. As Gerstle’s son said, the crime was gratuitous since his father would have gladly given Hill money had Hill told him he was down on his luck and needed help.
After Hill’s lawyer pleaded for leniency, arguing that Hill was simply a victim of his environment, the moment of truth arrived. The judge started speaking, ever so softly but very determinedly.
“I have been doing this job for a very long time and I am very comfortable with what I do,” said Judge Bruce Allen. “I have presided over many murder trials, but few have concerned a more brutal murder than this one. To attack a frail elderly man in an elevator is every citizen’s nightmare.”
He gave Hill the maximum sentence: 25 years to life.
But the proceeding wasn’t over. Judge Allen addressed Hill, urging him to take stock of his actions and change. The younger prisoners, he said, would look up to him and he could make a difference by being a positive role model. And then, speaking to Hill, who had converted to Islam and grown a beard in prison, the judge said: “All religions teach that we are all members of one community and must care for one another. I hope yours teaches this as well.”
The proceedings were over and I was elated. The judge, who I had suspected of being a bleeding heart liberal, had not only given Hill the maximum sentence, he had even – as I interpreted it – implicitly rebuked Islam.
Not only was my faith in our justice system reaffirmed, but it is an experience I will probably replay often, in my mind’s eye, for the duration of the present administration in Washington.