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Criminal Justice

Does Sentencing Day Help Families Heal, or Open Old Wounds?

Before the Buffalo mass shooter's sentencing, victims' families will have a chance to make their voices — and their pain — heard.

Kimberly Johnson of Buffalo, New York, places her hand on a photo of Heyward Patterson at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the May 2022 mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo. The gunman is scheduled to appear in court for sentencing Feb. 15. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

More than 30 years ago, a news camera was allowed inside a Milwaukee courtroom to capture the sentencing of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

The hearing started with friends and relatives of the 17 victims who chose to give impact statements. One by one, they calmly entered the courtroom and approached a podium several feet from Dahmer, who was seated at the defense table in an orange jumpsuit. Each one either handed over a copy of their prepared statement or recited their thoughts off the cuff as a stenographer recorded each word. Some could barely contain themselves as they tried to fight back a heavy flow of tears. Others carefully read each word on the page. 

About 22 minutes into the proceedings, Dahmer, the judge, and others in the courtroom had heard from grieving mothers, brothers, cousins and friends. 

Then, it was Rita Isbell’s turn. 

“I don’t even need a microphone,” Isbell said as she announced her full name for the record from the courtroom’s door. At the podium, she introduced herself again: the oldest sister of victim Errol Lindsey. 

At first, Isbell hesitated to say Dahmer’s first name, instead addressing him as “Whatever your name is, Satan.” She took a brief pause and continued.  

“I’m mad. This is how you act when you are out of control,” Isbell said, as her voice climbed an octave. “I don’t ever want to see my mother have to go through this again. Never, Jeffrey!” 

Isbell yelled Dahmer’s first name so loudly the microphone distorted. She flailed her arms and shook her head. She stomped and cursed, and began walking in Dahmer’s direction. “I hate you motherfucker! This is out of control!” It took four court officers to escort her out of the courtroom. 

Isbell’s mockery of insanity — the failed defense Dahmer used at trial — ended the victim-impact segment of the hearing. Dahmer received 15 consecutive life sentences.

The oral or written statements delivered by those affected by a convicted person’s crimes can take on a variety of tones: They can be emotional, faith-based, long-winded or brief, full of rage, or a passionate call-to-action for legislation or a stop to violence in a community. For some, reciting the words reopens wounds, while for others, it has provided a cathartic release.

On Feb. 15, relatives and friends of the 10 victims and three survivors of the mass shooting at Buffalo’s Tops Friendly Markets will have a chance to let the admitted killer know the full effect of his racist attack. The shooter — a 19-year-old white man who investigators say detailed his violently racist beliefs in a 180-page diatribe before the massacre — pleaded guilty to various charges, including state hate crimes and domestic act of terrorism. He will appear in an Erie County courtroom at 9:30 a.m. for his sentencing for the May attack, in which he used an arsenal of firearms to slaughter residents, ages 32 to 86, because they were Black. 

He will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He still faces the maximum punishment of death for the federal hate crime indictment the Justice Department filed against him. 

Attorneys have not said how many people will give impact statements at the hearing or what they will say, though all the families and the three survivors have the opportunity to speak. The victims include:

  • Aaron Salter, 55, a retired Buffalo police officer who worked security at the supermarket. He fired at the shooter in a heroic attempt to stop the carnage, but the bullet was stopped by the gunman’s body armor. 
  • Ruth Whitfield, 86, was the mother of a retired Buffalo fire commissioner and eldest of those killed. That day, she was visiting her husband of 68 years in a nearby nursing home when she went on a store run. 
  • Pearl Young, 77, taught Sunday school, was a substitute teacher and ran a food pantry in the Central Park neighborhood of Buffalo. 
  • Heyward Patterson, 67, was a church deacon and jitney driver who picked up shoppers from the Tops market.
  • Geraldine Talley, 62, was with her fiancé at the time of the shooting and is remembered as the glue who kept their family together. 
  • Andre Macneil, 53, was picking up a birthday cake for his son’s third birthday at the time of the shooting.
  • Margus Morrison, 52, was buying groceries for a Saturday meal with his wife of over 25 years. 
  • Roberta Drury, 32, was the youngest victim and described by her brother as “jubilant.”

The wounded survivors are Christopher Braden, 55; Jennifer Warrington, 50; and Zaire Goodman, 20 — all of whom will have the opportunity to give gut-wrenching impact statements about the massacre.

Power in words 

At the December sentencing for former Fort Worth, Texas, police officer Aaron Dean, the sister of Atatiana Jefferson read an impact statement that focused on suffering. Dean had fatally shot Jefferson in 2019, plunging the family of the 28-year-old woman into years of ongoing grief. As Dean’s case lingered for three years, Jefferson’s mother died in 2020 and her sister Amber Carr died weeks after her words were spoken in court in December 2022.

Jefferson’s sister Ashley Carr read an impact statement on behalf of her sister Amber, who was in the hospital at the time. The statement let Dean know the cascade of emotions Amber Carr felt toward him.

“Waiting these three years has not been easy. My panic attacks have brought me to the hospital multiple times. Actually flatlining four times,” Ashley Carr read in court on behalf of her sister.

“It was anger and rage at first. I wanted you to suffer the way we are suffering, the way I suffer. … Today, I have just arrived at pity not because of the punishment you have received from your crime — you and I both know that that is insufficient — I pity your ignorance,” Amber Carr wrote. “You do not know enough to be ashamed. You’re not self-aware enough to understand your responsibilities for this evil act. You’re so puffed up and full of yourself that your excuses, you made through all of this, you will never truly repent.”

Dean was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison. 

Everyone’s response to grief may not be the same, and a person’s medical history can exacerbate during mourning, said Dr. Trevia Hayden, chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science for the National Medical Association. If an individual has one or more medical conditions on top of suffering a loss, the symptoms can be similar. 

“That’s when you really need to get a mental health evaluation because it’s very hard to tell the difference,” Hayden says. 

Melinda Lawson, director of the homicide survivor advocacy program at Roberta’s House – a Maryland-based family grief support center, advises people to go see their doctor if their blood pressure goes up or if they’re experiencing pain in their chest. It’s important to tell your doctor that you’re experiencing grief and not depression “so they don’t put you on medication for depression when it’s a natural response to your loss.”

“The tools we give are: Take it one day at a time and know that it’s a roller coaster; today you might be feeling good and tomorrow it might be horrible; and you might be good for a couple of years and another trauma triggers you or the sentencing triggers you,” said Lawson.

Pain isn’t the only focus of the statements. When former police officer Kimberly Potter was tried for the death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Minnesota, Wright’s mother, Katie Ann Wright, used her victim impact statement to make a statement for social justice. She expressed disappointment in law enforcement and how Black people like her son are disproportionately killed by police during a traffic stop

“I have had many, many sleepless nights and days contemplating how and what it was going to say today. I have to be the voice for myself, my family, my community. Most of all, I have to be the voice for my son, Daunte,” Wright said, with her son’s father by her side. 

“April 11 was the worst day of my life. A police officer who’s supposed to serve and protect took so much away from us. She took our baby boy with a single gunshot through his heart. She shattered mine. My life in my world will never ever be the same,” Wright said. “Daunte Demetrius Wright, I will continue to fight in your name until driving while Black is no longer a death sentence.”

In rare cases, the victim’s family has chosen to forgive the convicted killer. 

Botham Jean’s brother, Brandt Jean, used his victim impact statement to show compassion to convicted murderer Amber Guyger. 

“I can speak for myself. I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you, and I don’t think anyone could say it again. I’m speaking for myself, not even on behalf of my family, but I love you like anyone else,” Brandt Jean said.

He then asked permission from the judge to give Guyger a hug.

Guyger was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the 2018 murder of Botham Jean. Guyger testified during the trial that she entered Bothan Jean’s apartment thinking it was her own and that he was an intruder. 

After the judge issued the sentence, she also hugged Guyger.

The legal importance of impact statements

“The sentencing is the human stage of the criminal justice system,” said Bernarda Villalona, a defense attorney and former homicide prosecutor. “They [families] feel like they don’t have a voice throughout the entire procedure. Everything is focused on the defendant and his right to trial and his right to go through the criminal justice system.”

Unless a member of the family was a witness to the crime or provides testimony to identify their loved one to the jury, Villalona said, they’re not heard from until sentencing. Prior to 1984, victims and their relatives were often left in the dark throughout an investigation. Prosecutors would cut deals with defendants without receiving input from the family or survivor. The Victims of Crimes Act and Crime Victims’ Rights Act created assistance, compensation, and rights for federal and state crime victims. 

It’s also important to know that the transcript from the sentencing becomes part of the defendant’s case file. Villalona says the words spoken or written by loved ones during sentencing lives on for decades. Each time the defendant is up for parole, those words are read by the parole board, which takes them into consideration. 

After the victim impact statements, the prosecutor and defense attorney address the court with their final thoughts and sentencing recommendation. This is also the only time the defendant is allowed to speak, unless they testified on their own behalf during trial. 

But despite what victims say in their statements, the judge gives the final words during sentencing. Unless there was a guilty plea bargain with a promised sentence, the judge can use their discretion within mandatory sentencing guidelines.