Things could have gone so differently today for Regina Tausinga. She stood up in front of the judge in a Provo courtroom and pleaded no contest to negligent homicide. She also pleaded guilty to the charge of allowing an unlicensed person (her 15-year-old son) to drive her car.
On August 21, her son was driving himself to school and accidentally ran over and killed my nephew, Cooper Mardesich. Because of my brother and his wife’s compassion, Gina’s son didn’t go to jail. (See the November 3rd post, An example of love and compassion)
And today, Ted and Sharon sat in the front row with Gina until she was called. The judge talked to her about the consequences of pleading no contest and pleading guilty. He asked if she understood that she was waiving her right to a jury trial. She said she did.
The judge seemed confused. He called Ted and Sharon up. Their son had died — had been accidentally killed — and yet the state wasn’t seeking any jail time or restitution from Gina. The judge asked if they were okay with that. They both said yes. Shortly after Cooper died, Ted and Sharon became friends with the Tausingas — and that friendship, love and support have helped everyone to heal. “We don’t seek any kind of restitution,” Ted told him. “That’s really not necessary in our eyes.”
The judge looked stunned. He actually said to them, “Okay. May the good lord bless you.” (Can you imagine a judge on, say, Law and Order uttering those words in court?)
As they sat down, the judge kept talking. “This is very, very unusual,” he said. He wanted to know why everyone wanted to move forward with sentencing right away. (Usually there’s at least a two-day delay before sentencing.) The lawyers said that the families wanted to resolve things so that they could continue their healing.
The room was packed. Besides the usual suspects waiting for their charges to be read, or for their sentences to be pronounced (mostly for drug-related charges), we took up a lot of space. Ted and Sharon, my mom and dad, my other brother and his wife, Ted and Sharon’s friends, plus Gina, her husband, her mother, her father, and her sisters and friends. It was suddenly really quiet.
The judge didn’t seem to want to just let it go. He said that he was faced with pronouncing a sentence in the case, but he felt isolated, unaware of the facts and circumstances of the case. “I don’t even know his name,” the judge said.
“His name is Cooper Mardesich, judge,” one of the attorneys said.
“I know no facts, because there never has been an evidenciary hearing,” the judge continued. “I know nothing. I don’t even know his age. I don’t even know how to spell his last name.” The case was called The State of Utah v. Regina Tausinga, so this was the first mention of Cooper in the courtroom.
The judge commented on how unusual it was for Cooper’s parents to not be seeking retribution. “In most cases, they would be seeking a public hanging,” the judge said.
He seemed reluctant, but finally agreed with the resolution: 185 hours of community service, and court probation for a year, and some as-yet-undetermined fines.
Gina got a chance to speak. Through her tears, she said that she keeps two pictures of Cooper in her home to remind her and her son to make better decisions, as well as to honor Cooper’s life. “Ted and Sharon gave us a gift we can never repay,” she said. “They forgave my son, and I want to try to be worthy of that gift.”
“We’ll be sorry forever.”
The judge said the outcome was an incredible tribute to Cooper. “It is an amazing story of forgiveness.”
I thought of the others in that courtroom, from the dozen or so (mostly men) sitting in front, shackled, to the others sitting on the church-like pews with us. How many people in that courtroom would receive the same grace?
The justice system is about making people accountable for their actions. There are laws, and penalties associated with breaking those laws. There was no minimum penalty, but the maximum in Gina’s case was one year in jail. Oddly, the day after Cooper died, a woman in Roosevelt, Utah, was sentenced to a year in jail for letting a 14-year old girl without a license drive her SUV (some stories say the girl was her daughter, others say she was a niece). The girl accidentally backed up over a 22-month old and killed her. In that case, the girl was charged with manslaughter in Juvenile Court and sentenced to a work camp.
Forgiving doesn’t make the pain go away. I’m sure Ted and Sharon still ache. We all do. But I suspect that by forgiving, they are living in a lighter, happier state. It would be so awful if there were animosity between our families. If we were pressing for the maximum penalty… If we couldn’t let go of the desire for vengeance. I first met Gina in court on the day they read the charges. We were sitting in the pews, waiting. This woman came up to Sharon, and the way they greeted each other, I thought they were old friends. They chatted. I said something stupid about how lucky we were to have our freedom and not be on the other end of the criminal justice system. (Looking at the guys in shackles prompted that comment.) I had no idea that this cheerful, nice woman was “the mother.” I didn’t know her name, or anything about her. When she was called before the judge, Sharon turned to me and said, “I tried to tell you that was Gina!” Biggest foot in mouth moment of my life.
This whole thing makes me want to be more mindful, and careful. And think about the consequences of my actions. We all make mistakes and have regrets. And when we mess up, hopefully we can be forgiven. and learn to forgive.
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