Judge’s sympathy only goes so far
Her son charged with a felony count of breaking and entering, the mother of Derek Murray appeared as a witness at his sentencing hearing in Rappahannock County Circuit Court on June 15 and spoke only as a mom could.
Mrs. Murray recounted to Judge Jeffery W. Parker a story of her son, both tragic and encouraging. Tragic for the effects of a childhood brain injury, but encouraging for the improvements he has made with treatment.
Until the last couple years, she explained, she didn’t realize that a brain injury her now 29-year-old son suffered when he was a child might have been a factor in his alcohol and drug abuse and the crimes he committed in Rappahannock and surrounding counties.
On April 6, Derek, a Castleton resident, pleaded guilty in Rappahannock County Circuit Court to a felony charge of breaking into and entering Hope Hill Baptist Church in Castleton on Sept. 16, 2015. Besides damage to the doors, the only evidence of his presence were two empty juice boxes. He did not take anything from the church.
After hearing from Mrs. Murray and three other witnesses, Parker sentenced Derek to four years in the penitentiary, with all by one year and six months suspended.
At the time of the hearing on the breaking and entering charge, Derek was out on bail after spending 15 months in the penitentiary for crimes committed between August and October of 2015.
Finally getting treatment
Derek’s friend, Daniel Poole, testified at the June 15 sentencing hearing that Derek resided with him for the first ten days after getting out of jail. During that time, they attended 20 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. As far as he knew, said Poole, Derek had remained sober.
Derek then moved back home with his mother, continued going to AA meetings, and began seeing Dr. Mary Lee Esty, a brain injury specialist based in Bethesda.
Mrs. Murray testified that her son had been injured when he was eight years old.
“We didn’t know that he had brain injuries,” she said. “We always knew he was bright,” but seemed to lack some mental skills.
She recounted that in 2015, Derek asked to go to the Betty Ford Clinic to be treated for his alcohol and drug abuse. There, Mrs. Murray told the court, brain mapping techniques indicated that Derek had suffered traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI.
“Before we could get him treatment, though, Derek committed a spate of crimes,” she said.
“Your son has a lengthy criminal history,” Judge Parker noted. “Why was this not addressed earlier?”
“When he was injured,” she replied, “there were not the resources to [diagnose] his injuries. As a parent, you can imagine how I feel.”
Dr. Esty, who has a Masters in Social Work and a Ph.D. in Health Psychology, also testified at the hearing. She told the court that she had been studying brain injury since 1994 and opened her clinic in 1996.
“In the last 13 years, I have treated over 1,380 TBI patients, many of them veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said.
She described brain injury as similar to “putting a blanket over a fire.” Unless the “blanket” is removed through treatment that part of the brain does not function properly.
“If the brain is not functioning properly, some parts are not available,” she continued. “The brain protects itself after injury. There is no reset button. [Without treatment] the condition gets worse and worse.”
Dr. Esty reported that after treating Derek in 25 sessions, she could see improvement in the area of the brain that deals with impulsivity.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff seized on the area of impulsivity versus moral choice.
“Does someone with brain injury have the ability to plan?” he asked.
“You can plan something,” replied Dr. Esty, “but the impulse behind it can be irrational. Habitual behavior is more likely the result of impulsivity.”
Derek’s probation officer testified that he had been charged with a probation violation in Orange County just days before the sentencing hearing. On June 11, he was charged with driving on a revoked or suspended license.
The probation officer reported that Derek had tried to pass an erratic driver who then brandished a firearm. Derek called the police and was told to go to the police station to file a complaint. It was there that his probation violation was discovered. This charge is due to be taken up in Orange County District Court on July 21.
‘The acid test’
In his summary argument, Derek’s attorney Blair Howard acknowledged his client’s problems with alcohol and drugs and criminal behavior.
“[Derek] was having trouble with alcohol and drugs. He was a mess,” said Howard. “No one knew the possible effects of brain injury. He gets in trouble during a six-week period and spends 15 months in jail. But he wanted help.”
The “acid test,” Howard told the court, was whether “Derek was going to follow through and seek help. I say the answer is ‘yes.’ He seems to have genuinely demonstrated to the court that he’s done whatever he needs to do to turn his life around.”
Howard asked that Parker take Derek’s diligence into account when fashioning the sentence.
Goff said he was “also impressed with Murray’s actions, but his past is catching up with him. His criminal record is six pages long. Society demands penance for breaking the rules.”
Before announcing the sentence, Parker asked if Derek had anything to say to the court.
“I would like to apologize for my actions,” answered Derek. “When I was growing up, I would do things and wonder why I did them.”
He said he would like to continue treatment and wished he and his family had realized the effects of his injuries sooner, before he got into trouble.
Parker called Derek’s case “bizarre” because nothing had been taken from the church.
“He didn’t pillage, he just drank some fruit drinks and left,” Parker observed. “It was not like breaking into a home and stealing property to buy drugs. If that had been the case, I would have lowered the boom.”
If this had been a first offense, Parker added, it would have merited a sentence of probation only.
Besides the prison term, Parker sentenced Derek to 2 years of probation. He was also ordered to continue working with Dr. Esty and participate in a restorative justice program. Derek was then remanded into custody.