“We pulled up to his house and called his cell phone to let him know that we had arrived,” the eyewitness testified under oath. “As Trey came down the steps of his front porch, his wife waved goodbye to him. There were three of us in the van already—the defendant was driving, I was in the passenger seat, and the shooter was on the seat bench right behind us. When Trey opened the sliding door and saw the blue tarp draped over the seat bench, he joked, ‘Who’s the body bag for?’ We all laughed, but uncomfortably. For we knew what he did not—that it was for him. Then he shut the door.”
I heard this testimony while sitting in federal trial court as an extern at Office of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York (EDNY). Fascinated by the rule of law and the human condition, I had already taken every course on constitutional criminal law that Columbia offered—evidence, criminal investigations, and criminal adjudication. To me, this competitive externship at the EDNY was the culmination of my learning experience, taking what I studied in my casebooks and putting it into practice in real litigation. When I applied for the program, though, I did not know that I would be assigned a capital case.
From jury selection to eyewitness testimony to forensic evidence, I heard the story of a man who committed two murders-for-hire over the span of ten years. His first victim was a drug dealer with whom he was in competition for business; they worked the same corner of the same park in Brooklyn. His second victim, Trey, was the husband of the woman with whom he was having an affair; it was a modern-day David and Bathsheba story of killing the romantic competition.
Aftermath of Murder
After Trey closed the sliding door, the shooter—who, in his own trial, was so threatening to the court that he had to wear a Silence of the Lambs mask at one point—reached around Trey’s shoulders and pulled the trigger at the temple of Trey’s forehead. Blood spewed everywhere, but he didn’t die immediately. Instead, in a burst of energy he lunged at the door. As he mustered every effort to open it, the defendant passed the shooter another, more powerful gun to use. He did and dealt the final blow. Trey was motionless. And lifeless.
For the next year, the members of Trey’s family—except his wife, who was a part of the conspiracy—searched for answers. He was missing, but his body had not been found. As they circled the neighborhood on a weekly basis with a megaphone calling for people to come forward, Trey’s body was almost in plain view. “We decided to bury him in a cemetery,” the eyewitness, who had taken a plea bargain for his cooperation, confessed, “because, after all, there’s no strange dead body smell in a place that is filled with dead people. It’s expected.”
He was right. In fact, no one probably would have ever discovered Trey’s body if the eyewitness had not been riddled with guilt and come forward to the police.
My Role as a Student
Since I was a law student during the trial, I was not allowed to be at the table with the prosecutors. Instead, I sat with the families of the victims. I got to know their parents, their siblings, their nieces and nephews and, in the case of the first victim, his children.
One morning, while forensic evidence was being presented, Trey’s sister left the courtroom. I could tell that she was upset, so I followed her, hoping to talk with her or, perhaps, just listen. When I walked out the doors of the courtroom, though, I did not see her at the water fountain or in the hallway. So I checked the restroom, where I found her weeping. Sobbing, actually.
“No matter what that jury decides,” she told me through tears, “they cannot bring my brother back to life. That’s what I really want. I mean, I know he wasn’t perfect—he was a drug dealer and a terrible husband. But I think he was going to turn around. I hoped, anyway.”
I was speechless. As an officer-in-training of the court, I was supposed to be objective and represent the government. I was limited by the professional role I was tasked to play. As a Christian, though, I wanted to tell her about another judge—The Judge—who could bring the dead back to life, who once told a child, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” (Mark 5:41).
In that moment, I realized that proximate justice—that is, imperfect justice that recognizes that something is better than nothing—is the best we can do in this age. Steven Garber of the Washington Institute puts it like this:
When we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are yearning for the way things ought to be, and someday will be—even as we give ourselves to what can be in a world where evil persists, sometimes very malignantly. If we think that the lordship of Christ over every square inch of the whole of reality means that we can settle for nothing less than explicit recognition of that claim and its reality in public life, then we will never be able to sustain the vocations that are required for meaningful political witness in the face of the continuing injustice, which comes from the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Proximate justice does not mean that we should forego the passionate pursuit of justice in this age. In fact, at the end of our trial, it was right and just that the jury convicted the defendant, because the evidence showed beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the crimes alleged. And if they had not convicted him, we would have had cause to protest their decision as an unjust exercise of jury nullification.
Yet we pursue proximate justice in this age even as we recognize that true justice—the kind of justice that brings the dead back to life—will ultimately come in the age to come. Our longings for justice will only finally be fulfilled in the new heaven and the new earth. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”