The best gift I ever got from a convicted killer

If, over a long career, you sentence a lot of people to prison, several things can happen to you.   Most of them are bad.  Here’s a short list of some of the bad things:

*  You can begin to see offenders only in numerical terms.  “What’s the base offense level, criminal history score and sentencing range?  Next!”

*  Unless you are very careful, you may become inured to the horrific impact that prison sentences have on offenders and their families.  “You say your parental rights will be terminated if you go to prison, well, they’ll be better off anyway.”

*  You begin to suppress the anger that naturally flows from the horrific crimes you are forced to study.  Unless you struggle mightily to resist, you will then allow that anger to boil up to the point of an inner rage.  That rage in turn fuels a righteous indignation that, metaphorically speaking, permits you to sentence Satan while thinking of yourself as the Archangel Michael.

*  With a despair akin to that found in the best of Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines, you may find yourself making jokes with punch lines about the futility of rehabilitation.   “Say, did you hear about the guy who went to prison, was rehabilitated and came out an even better monster?”

All of these things are unconscious. If they weren’t, you would be one sick puppy.

Now, this must not become a pity party.  I have a hell of good gig.  I get paid decently, and the pension is great. People call me “judge” and the bowing and scraping I get with a snap of my fingers is a nice extra perk.  That said, if you care about doing a good job when you sentence people, you better try to find an antidote for the creepy things I have just described.

For my (partial) antidote, I realized that I needed a mental image of a physical object that would evoke a sense of balance.  The image that I settled on derives from a gift given to me by a fellow named David Tommy Gene Suggett.

Tommy Gene got into a bar fight in Cozad, Nebraska when a young Hispanic kid provoked him.  One thing led to another, and Tommy Gene stabbed the kid in the heart about three times.  The young man died, and Tommy Gene was convicted of murder.  Ultimately, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In the late 1970s, I was appointed to represent Tommy Gene in a state post-conviction action.  To make a very long and fairly complex story short, I got Tommy Gene’s sentence reduced by half and this made Tommy Gene immediately eligible for parole.

After the trial judge refused to give Tommy Gene relief on the sentencing question, I convinced the Nebraska Supreme Court that the trial judge had been too tough on Tommy Gene when he gave him 30 years in prison.  If you feel the need to read more, see State v. Suggett, 200 Neb. 693, 264 N.W.2d 876 (Neb. 1978) (Although sentence of imprisonment of defendant convicted of second-degree murder was required in view of serious nature of crime, where defendant had no significant criminal record, crime was unplanned and provoked by victim, defendant exhibited willingness to work at honest labor, was not addicted to alcohol or narcotic drugs, and his prison record provided evidence that extended period of incarceration was not required to rehabilitate him, term of imprisonment of 30 years was not warranted and would be reduced by Supreme Court to term of 15 years).

When I represented Tommy Gene, I spent a lot of time with him.  I really got to know him.  I learned that he had been born in Arkansas, that his family had abandoned him at a young age, that he spent a lot of nights sleeping in farm wagons filled with cotton, that he had virtually no education, that he had never been in any real trouble, that he had drifted from Arkansas to Nebraska on the hope of farm work, that all the guards and case managers who dealt with him in the prison thought so much of him that they were willing to sign statements for presentation to the judge expressing their view that Tommy Gene ought to be released from prison, and that he really loved my wife’s cooking.

As for the later point, I needed a lot of time with Tommy Gene.  So, I got him moved to the jail in Dawson County.  In that old jail, situated on the second floor of the Sheriff’s office, there were no firm procedures.  A lawyer could see his client about any time the lawyer wanted.  Moreover, the jailer was a nice guy and I got along with him very well.  He allowed me to bring Tommy Gene meals from our home.  I spent numerous evenings sitting on the floor outside of Tommy Gene’s cell while he ate the meal my wife prepared and we talked about his life and his case.

Anyway, I came to really like Tommy Gene.  While there was no question that he had murdered someone, Tommy Gene was not a bad person.  In fact, save for the small matter of stabbing someone three times in the heart, Tommy Gene was a good person.

When I got the decision of the Supreme Court, I called Tommy Gene who by then had been returned to the  prison in Lincoln.  At first, Tommy Gene didn’t understand the good news.  When I finally was able to get through to him that he would be let go soon, he seemed stunned.  Shortly thereafter, and fairly abruptly, Tommy Gene hung up.

As soon as I got a copy of the opinion, I mailed Tommy Gene a copy and told him in a letter to contact me if there was any delay in his parole.  Some months later, I learned that Tommy Gene had been paroled.  With that, Tommy Gene’s case was no longer the compulsive driver it had earlier become.

I never saw him Tommy Gene again.  And except for what I will describe next, I never heard from him again either.

One day a pretty woman walked into our law office and said she would like to speak to me.  I came out to the counter, and she introduced herself as one of Tommy Gene’s friends.  She said she had something for me from Tommy.   With that, she gave me the leather briefcase that is pictured below.  She told me that Tommy Gene had paid one of the other inmates to make the case for me.   She said that Tommy Gene said, “Thanks.”  With that, she left.Briefcase

The briefcase sits in my office.  I look it at it before I sentence people.  When I do, I hope for balance.  Sometimes it works.


13 responses

  1. Whichever,

    I have asked myself that question a million times. I do remember that Tommy Gene was shy. I also remember that he seemed out of place in Nebraska. I think his rural southern roots caused him to feel uncomfortable with folks up North. Hell, the truth is, I just don’t know.

    Thanks for asking. All the best.


  2. This beautiful little essay is as much about being a real criminal defense lawyer as it is about being a judge. I am going to post the link on the listserv of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Thank you for writing it.

  3. Nice story. My dad has practiced criminal law for about 60 years, but has avoided becoming cynical. I’m not sure how he does it, but I’m glad he does. I’ll show him this post.

  4. Couple things: I speculate that Tommy Gene’s reluctance to thank you personally stems from a combination of just wanting to get away from there where he’d had such a hard time and his embarrassment at not being able to thank you adequately–or adequately in his own eyes.

    The other thing is a minor point of the stabbing. Without re-litigating the matter and without knowing the details of the fight, it strikes me that the stabbing three times was a single act, not three separate acts. There’s a lot of rage in that kind of fight.

    Eric Hines

  5. Dear Mr. Hines,

    If I remember the autopsy photos correctly (I thought they were too gruesome to show to the jury, but the Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed that post-conviction claim with a wave of the hand), there were three separate slices to the heart. While the charge of murder was one single act, how the murder took place was relevant to the State’s contention that Tommy Gene’s self-defense claim at trial was bogus.

    Incidentally, at trial, the State and Tommy Gene were represented by two old bulls who had tons of trial experience. The story of the disappeared knife that reappeared during the trial is an interesting tale, but one for another day.

    All the best.


  6. Oh I’m sure there were three separate stabs. I just speculate that they could have been from one rage-filled rush, not a stab, see the results, decide to do it again, and so on.

    Plainly the experts at trial, with a better view of the evidence, have a more qualified opinion.

    Eric Hines

  7. I am a DOJ lawyer – civil, not criminal. In a former life, I was a Legal Aid lawyer. I often wonder can one heinous act render someone evil or bad. Can one great act kindness after a lifetime of bad or questionable behavior make someone “good” or at least eliminate the taint? Anyway, I loved your story, and am glad that you think so deeply about sentencing.

  8. Thanks, Rick.

    Both questions you pose are profound. I have no answers. I am reminded of something, however.

    As my Chief Judge, Laurie Smith Camp (a very wise woman) has written: “In the words of Clint Eastwood in ‘Unforgiven,’– ‘We all have it coming.’ In the words of Dustin Hoffman in ‘Papillon’ – Blame is for God and small children.’” Laurie Smith Camp,Sentencing Philosophy, at

    All the best.


  9. Pingback: The Brief « Hercules and the umpire.

  10. Pingback: A clarification and an apology « Hercules and the umpire.

%d bloggers like this: