Opinion: Final chapter in a tragic story

It was an odd and awkward reunion in Courtroom 8A in the Fulton County Justice Tower on that recent Friday afternoon.

As the hearing scheduled for 3:30 approached, the groups gathered in separate corners of the courtroom; some nodded an acknowledgement to others while others ignored each other, still cast in the roles designed for us by circumstance.

We were here for the last chapter of a tragic story, for the final resolution of an intense, week-long trial that had taken place during the summer.

I sat near the front on the left side of the courtroom, with two fellow jurors. In the case of the State of Georgia vs. Nicholas Benton, we and nine others had convicted Benton of 13 felony charges, including the murders of two men in a drug deal that took a fatal turn. As we talked, we shared that we felt compelled to be here to witness his sentencing by Judge John Goger.

We saw familiar faces around the courtroom, which had been our home for a week. Some had testified before us.

In the back sat the friends and family of one of the victims, Reginald Coicou. The group included his mother.

At the other end of the row from me, Benton’s parents had taken a seat. They sat stoically, as they had for most of the trial.

The hearing was delayed as the court system conducted some of its routine business. A plea agreement in another case had been reached.

At 3:50, a sheriff’s deputy escorted an expressionless Benton into the courtroom through the access door.

During the trial, he’d worn a suit. This day, he was in a blue jumpsuit with “Fulton County Jail Inmate” stamped on the back. He was also shackled.

The assistant district attorney stood. The state was asking Goger to sentence Benton to life in prison without the possibility of parole, she said, noting that two people had died as a result of his actions.

The judge had reviewed a pre-sentencing investigation provided by the county probation department.

Then Coicou’s mother came forward to address the court. She said that she’d gotten word of the incident that night in April 2016 and rushed to the scene.

“His body was riddled with bullets,” she said. He was already dead when she got there.

“I whispered ‘I love you son’ for the last time.”

As she struggled to make her statement, Judge Goger said: “Take your time.” Someone brought her tissues as she sobbed.

Then she continued.

“There are not adequate words to describe the pain, the anger, the despair,” she said. “He did not deserve what happened to him.”

“When I saw him last at his funeral, I promised him that justice will be done.”

Benton’s father hung his head.

Benton’s attorney rose, calling this “a difficult case.” He argued for a sentence that would allow for parole.

And he invited Benton’s mother to address the judge.

As she made her way down the row toward me, I stepped into aisle to let her by. She didn’t look at me, and we didn’t acknowledge each other. I was reminded during that moment: as the foreman of the jury, I had read the verdict — delivering what was almost certainly the worst news of her life.

She had testified at the trial, apparently attempting to give her son an alibi. The assistant district attorney poked holes in her story at that time. The jury didn’t believe her.

Now she was trying to at least give him a chance to get out of prison some day.

“The only thing I know for sure is that my son … didn’t kill those young men,” she said. “I just don’t know what happened.”

She pointed out that three different families’ lives had been ruined by the incident. She said she loved her son.

“My son is not a killer. He’s not a monster.”

As both mothers spoke about this case they revealed the raw pain that murder causes. And as jurors, we found ourselves reflecting on the difficult and consequential decisions we made.

Said one fellow juror: “I just wanted to see it through to the end. It was a powerful experience.”

“I wondered if we would finally get to hear from Nick — if he would continue to say he was innocent or would admit his guilt and show remorse.”

Benton did not speak at the sentencing, and he hadn’t testified at the trial.

Another juror wanted to see how the case would end.

“We really wrestled with it,” she said. “We tried to do the right thing.”

When Judge Goger prepared to announce his sentence, he acknowledged the jury’s work.

“I’m satisfied that the jury listened very carefully to the evidence in this case,” he said.

He then described us.

“People that paid attention, listened carefully to every word these witnesses had to say.”

He sentenced Benton to life in prison plus 10 years. He didn’t agree with the district attorney’s recommendation of eliminating the possibility for parole.

Benton will be eligible for parole in 30 years, when he’s 57.

After the judge spoke, I realized that I have a daughter the same age as Benton. And then I realized that Benton will be in prison until he’s older than I am.

Two men are dead. Three families are devastated.

“It’s a tragic situation,” said a fellow juror. I could only nod in agreement.

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