How it feels to send someone to prison

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James Bodiford, 64, Chief Judge of Cobb Superior Court

Thirty-seven years ago, at age twenty-seven, James Bodiford quit a job selling magazines to attend law school. In 1985 he was appointed chief magistrate judge of Cobb County, and in 1994 he was elected to Superior Court. Bodiford has presided over some of the region’s most prominent trials, including Fred Tokars, who was convicted of masterminding the murder of his wife; Lynn Turner, the so-called anti­freeze serial murderer; and Brian Nichols, the Fulton County Courthouse shooter. But as he approaches retirement this year, Bodiford says his decisions in non-capital cases will stay with him the most.

Some people think that sentencing a convicted murderer is the hardest. It’s not. It’s easy. Because in Georgia, murder gets a life imprisonment. If a jury convicts someone of murder, I know what I must do.

But on most offenses I have discretion, and I value that discretion. It weighs on me. Now, if you have a fourth-time convicted felon, then you’re not really thinking too much about that individual—if his life is lost here on Earth, that’s the way it is. But often you see a young person who has just made a mistake. As a judge, you have his or her complete life in front of you—even if you aren’t sentencing them to life in prison. They have parents, just like you did. Sometimes they are parents, like you are. They have friends, fellow church members, folks that believe in them. And you know that your sentence—be it two or five or twenty years—is going to have a huge impact not only on the convict but on the community.

And in the toughest cases, there may not even have been criminal intent. One case: A young woman was with her family in a van on their way home from a jewelry store, where she had taken her parents to show them the engagement ring her fiance had picked out. Meanwhile, in the oncoming lanes, two young men were drag racing when one of the drivers lost control, veered across the line, and crashed into the van. The daughter was killed. All I can do, as a judge, is punish those responsible and hand out a sentence. I try always to balance the victims and the harm the crime has caused the community against the criminal. In this case, the criminals were young, with no criminal records. They were educated, had family and community support. There was no alcohol involved. They didn’t mean to kill anyone. But they did. And did they show remorse? Accountability for their actions? Well, they chose to go to trial, which is absolutely their right. Rather than admitting guilt and saying they’re sorry, they decided to take their chances. A jury found the young men guilty of vehicular homicide. I gave them the median of seven years. Was it the right decision? Was I too harsh? Too lenient? Hard to say. I don’t regret it. I’ve run into people to whom I’ve given a second chance who shake my hand and thank me for helping them turn their lives around. I’ve seen others I let slide for small offenses right back in my courtroom for more serious crimes. I don’t have a crystal ball. As for these two young motorists: It’s been years since their release dates, and I haven’t seen them.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.

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