The final chapter in an ugly story
Sitting in Judge Stephen Mock’s courtroom last Monday in Woodland, California, after William Gardner was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of Leslie Pinkston, I was a bit surprised by my lack of emotional response. Aside from an initial flash of satisfaction, I didn’t feel much of anything, really. Just empty. The words of Leslie’s niece, Heather, in her poignant victim’s statement, came echoing back: “There’s no justice. There’s ‘just us’.”
Heather’s statement revealed the intense loss that permeates her life. Leslie’s cousin, Nicole, expressed similar feelings, but focused on Leslie’s daughter, Calie, whose life has been turned inside out, upside down, and smashed to pieces. Victim advocate Julia Hernandez choked on her own tears as she read a letter from Leslie’s sister, Crystal, who is now raising Calie in a different city. Crystal told of Calie’s ongoing devastation, and how her trauma is triggered by all sorts of things; how she insists that Crystal hide in her closet with her, with all her stuffed animals blocking the light from the crack under the door, so “the bad man won’t come and get them.” And Crystal does this. Every day.
Hernandez also read a letter from Leslie’s mother, Carla, who recalled her daughter’s feisty spirit, and declared that with the sentencing, she planned to move forward and forget that Gardner ever existed. Clearly, Carla is made of much tougher stuff than many in the courtroom, who haven’t been able to move on at all, still wracked with pain and weeping as if a whole year hadn’t gone by.
So much sadness in that courtroom that day.
So much sadness.
All because of one man. Did he show any remorse as the victims’ statements were read? As Leslie’s family stood and faced him? Any regret, anything at all? No. He slouched in his chair, looking blank at best and bored at worst. Of course, the victims’ statements followed on the heels of Gardner’s final statement, in which he whined about his legal representation, accused his attorney of calling him the “N-word” (which the attorney later categorically denied), and basically thumbed his nose at the entire process. In Gardner’s mind, everything happening to him that day was everyone else’s fault, not the consequence of his own actions.
Following the sentencing, as Leslie’s family and friends held each other, quietly sobbing, Gardner was led from the courtroom. At the doorway, he turned to the television camera and said, “The judge is a Klansman.” Shock and disbelief rippled through the room. To the very end, Gardner proved himself to be a loathsome creature. Clearly, he was attempting to ride on the coattails of the racial unrest in Ferguson.
Yes, there is undeniably racial injustice in the legal system. This was not one of those instances. Gardner had a witness drive him to the murder scene, another eyewitness at the scene, cell phone records to document his exact time and location that day, numerous threatening text messages found on Leslie’s old cell phone, and still had the murder weapon on him when he was apprehended! It doesn’t get much more guilty than that! His attempt to paint this case as racist and insert himself into the Ferguson fallout, into the legitimate discussion of racial injustice, was insulting, and in particular, insulting to the true victims of racial discrimination.
As I drove home from the courthouse, my mind bounced between burgeoning rage for Gardner and aching sympathy for Leslie’s loved ones. Even the death penalty, let alone a life sentence, would be inadequate for what he did. Gardener deserves a death sentence for what he did to Leslie, another for Calie, and one for every person whose heart was shattered. In fact, he deserves a good old-fashioned classic medieval Henry VIII death sentence: hanging until almost dead, slit open from stem to stern, having his organs pulled out, shown to him and burned before his eyes, his genitals cut off, and then drawn and quartered by four horsemen.
Yes, that’s what Gardener deserves.
And… it still wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t change a thing. It wouldn’t bring Leslie back. Nothing will fix this situation. Nothing.
So, I wondered, what course of action is left? How can we take a step forward? What was left in the aftermath of all this misery? And the answer popped into my head: Calie. We can transform sadness into love. Some of Leslie’s friends are already moving in that direction. Last month, they held the first “Calie’s Carnival” to raise college tuition funds for Calie — saving for college was something Leslie had already started doing for her daughter. Calie’s Carnival is intended to be an annual event, but we don’t need to wait for it to roll around again to support Calie — there is a Calie’s Carnival account at First Northern Bank, as well as a Leslie Pinkston Memorial Fund. Both go toward a trust fund for Calie.
Yes. This feels right.
I walked down to First Northern on the spot after returning from the courthouse, and made the first of what will be an annual deposit into that account. Going forward, instead of remembering every November 18 as “that day,” I’ll think of it as the day I show love and support for a little girl who really needs it.
In her victim’s statement, Leslie’s cousin Nicole listed all the things Calie lost when her mother was murdered, and among them, her community, now that she is living elsewhere. But that doesn’t have to be so. I challenge everyone in the community, and beyond, to make a deposit into one of those accounts, no matter how big or small, every November 18. We can do this. We can show Calie that her community won’t forget her. It won’t bring her mother back, but it will help keep her mother’s wish for her daughter alive.
Yes, we can do this. “Just us.”